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“Aaron-ald Mac-Donald, YOU’RE NEXT! What am I, a clown? Do I amuse you?”
Tonight, it’s a tale of two coaches.
There was one coach who was routinely meeting rational franchise expectations during the regular season. While skepticism abounded among the fanbase, ownership and management raved of the coach’s achievements, so much so they offered him an extension to demonstrate their confidence and (short-term) commitment, a full season before the coach’s “free agency” could arrive.
But then, despite the adversity of an injured star or two, another uncompetitive finish in the NBA Playoffs had the fanbase grumbling and management compelled to do something drastic to shake things up, perhaps to save themselves. Thus, the well-established coach, fresh off a newly-minted contract extension, gets canned with due haste.
That’s about where Indiana was last summer with Nate McMillan, now a Top-20 all-time NBA winner and the Atlanta Hawks’ not-interim-for-long head coach. This spring, that’s the likely situation Jon Horst and company will face regarding Mike Budenholzer, the two-time NBA Coach of the Year who brings his Milwaukee Bucks to Atlanta before yet another primetime audience (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL), and a growing number of Bucks fans giving Coach Bud the side-eye.
There aren’t many professional coaches that can call their own shots coming off a 24-58 season. But Budenholzer, an eventual lame-duck victim of the Ferry and Friends fiasco in Atlanta, still had a Poptree pedigree in his pocket, while the Hawks’ peak franchise season of 2014-15 remained fresh in many struggling rivals’ minds. The coach with the 24-58 record had his choice of suitors even before the 2017-18 season could end with a soft firing by Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk.
He settled on a team that had the burgeoning star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, that by all rights should have been Atlanta’s, as we all know by now how the draft story Drew itself up. Budenholzer inked a four-year deal, and the timing was perfect. Just as the Hawks’ 60-22 season of 2015 coincided with LeBron James leaving Atlanta’s division beforehand, the Bucks’ emergence with the Greek Freak to the exact same record occurred after LeBron left not only Milwaukee’s division, but the Eastern Conference for the first time in his storied career.
Now, the Bucks’ tidy playoff exits are being comman-deer-ed by slightly less heralded folks, named Kawhi and Jimmy, that had just arrived with their new playoff teams. As Milwaukee (34-20, 3rd in NBA East, certain to be down from last season’s 56-17 first-place finish) completes a second-straight year of sliding downward in winning percentage, and as the playoffs near, this time, with a #1 seed and “homecourt advantage” throughout becoming less likely, there’s a queasy feeling permeating throughout Wisconsin, and the pandemic variant strains have little to do with it.
Horst has been doing what he could to solidify and improve the team around his reigning two-time MVP. Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228 million extension deal just ahead of the season opener. Horst sent a slew of first-round picks and pick swaps to New Orleans to covert Eric Bledsoe into Jrue Holiday. Then, he recently handed the guard a four-year extension worth up to $160 million, making Holiday a third pillar with current top-contract Khris Middleton and Giannis.
Useful additions Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes (47.1 3FG% and 44.9 3FG%, respectively) were acquired as free agents in the offseason. At the Trade Deadline, Horst turned some D.J.s into a P.J., sending Messrs. Augustin and Wilson to Houston for P.J. Tucker and Rodions Kurucs. Not the best deadline pilfering of the Rockets in recent times, but it’ll do.
Adding to the veteran presence and depth before the playoffs, former Hawks All-Star and new free agent Jeff Teague was brought back into the Budfold. The soon-to-be 33-year-old is no Malcolm Brogdon, but as long as Holiday (career-bests of 56.3 2FG% and 39.9 3FG%) can remain healthy, Teague (1-for-7 FGs as a sub in past two Bucks road wins, but 8-for-11 as a replacement starter vs. CHA last Friday) will do just fine.
Questionable for this evening, Giannis (DNP’d last six games) has been riddled with knee soreness, and the up-and-down nature of the Bucks’ performances without him in recent weeks has unnerved Bucks Nation. If he’s again gimpy at playoff time, and the Bucks bow out in unconvincing fashion yet again, Horst understands he can’t fire the players. At the same time, there’s pressure to lock down Budenholzer for the sake of continuity, lest he kindly ask for permission to go job-hunting again when things go south this time next year.
Mitchell Maurer of SB Nation’s BrewHoop ran Twitter polls to check the temperature of Bucks fans earlier this week, as the regular season rounds the final corner. While polls rarely turn out folks who are satisfied with anything, it was notable that 69 percent of respondents expressed either uneasiness or nervousness about Milwaukee’s playoff readiness. When pried further to categorize their feelings, only 15 percent cited “health/injury” worries, while over 45 percent chose “Coaching concerns,” and I don’t think any of them mean Darvin Ham.
Budball has a different feel to it this season, I posit, because “3-and-speeD” hasn’t been as simple an approach. The Bucks have always lugged along vets to pair with Giannis and Middleton, particularly those who can clear out the paint to let Giannis get Freaky deeky. But center Brook Lopez (33.8 3FG%) has regressed from his peak 2018-19 season (36.5 3FG%) as a perimeter option and a rim-protector (1.4 BPG, down from a career-best 2.4 last year as an All-Defensive Second-Teamer). That’s caused Budenholzer to rely more on bug-eyed Bobby Buckets to hold the fort in the middle, certainly more than Portis has been accustomed to doing in his career, along with the aging Tucker, and Giannis himself.
Antetokoumpo has improved markedly as a passer (career-high 6.2 APG), but he hasn’t made strides as a perimeter or free-throw shooter. Posting a league-best 3.09 Defensive RPM among power forwards in 2019-20, last season’s Defensive Player of the Year winner has ebbed to a fair-to-middlin’ 0.58 thus far, further harming his chances to three-peat as MVP even if Milwaukee (3.5 games behind first-place Philly) makes a late run toward the top of the NBA East.
In contrast to McMillan’s Hawks, every member of the Bucks’ core, aside from 24-year-old Donte DiVincenzo, is now comfortably on the other side of age 25. As that brings the “Win-Now” wails from Wisconsites to a boil, the high pace of play characterized by Bud-coached teams (MIL’s 104.6 Pace in April is an NBA-high) are becoming more reliant on synapse than pure muscle-twitch.
As @Spud2nique noted recently, the Bucks are a bit road-weary, the Hornets game representing the only interruption in a spate of road contests that stretches to nine tonight in Atlanta. Milwaukee (23-20 outside the Central Division) caught a bit of a break for unfortunate reasons, the curfew in Minneapolis forcing what was to be last night’s romp over the Timberwolves to be played and wrapped up a few hours earlier. While the Bucks will return home after tonight, the confines won’t be so comfy with the Grizzlies, Suns and 76ers (twice) paying them visits.
Holiday is the designated ball-stopper on pick-and-rolls (NBA-high 7.7 P&R ball-handler possessions defended per game), but even Jrue gives up more buckets than he’d like (NBA-high 7.0 P&R ball-handler PPG allowed), in part because Bud demands the fouls be kept low (NBA-best 17.9 FTAs/game allowed), in part because of his team’s loosening defensive presence around the rim.
The current NBA scoring leader among those ball-handlers on P&R plays? None other than Atlanta’s Trae Young (NBA-high 13.9 PPG, 0.5 more than lucky-ducky Luka). Heading into this primetime matchup on a back-to-back, the Bucks hope that, as with the status of Danilo Gallinari (sore footsie), Trae (bruised calf) will remain on the “out” side of questionable.
Young, who joined Clint Capela in sitting out Atlanta’s 129-115 loss in Milwaukee on January 24, also leads The Association with 2.7 APG off drives. If he plays tonight, you can bet that Forbes and Middleton will be tasked with helping Holiday (career-high 1.8 SPG) and DiVincenzo (questionable, sore toe) keep hands in the dime jar.
With or without Giannis, Milwaukee thrives on superior marksmanship (56.5 team 3FG%, 3rd in NBA). To counter, Atlanta will need to keep the volume of floaters and lobs high, and the turnovers and circus shots low. Milwaukee will do all it can to have someone less capable than Young kicking the ball out the paint, particularly to another fellow that was unavailable for that January contest, Bogdan Bogdanovic (last 9 games: 21.8 PPG, 52.7 3FG%, 4.3 APG, Shaq’s pronunciation tonight will be a doozy), or another shot-creator who was on another team at the time, Lou Williams (last 7 games: 52.4 3FG%, 12.9 bench PPG; 5.8 assists per-36). Hey, Chuck, who Lou play for?
Back in January, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter and Gallinari carried the day for Atlanta, at the time a hopeful 8-8, with 80 of the Hawks’ 115 points in defeat. As Atlanta’s defense held the Bucks to an uncharacteristic 32.3 3FG% shooting display, Milwaukee needed Giannis to do a little bit of everything to keep the pesky Hawks at bay. This contest, as will be the case in ten days when these teams meet on the State Farm Arena floor again, is shaping up to be a whole new ballgame.
Having already turned around the Hawks’ fortunes, McMillan is under little pressure to prove what he can do with the keys he was handed barely 45 days ago. Closing out the regular season, and individual games, strong enough to merit a Play-In-averting seed is the name of the game going forward.
Trying to keep their string of victories versus Eastern opponents un-snapped (7-0) since McMillan took the reins full-time, Atlanta (30-25, now closer to #1 Philly than to #11 Toronto) lapsed in the final two minutes of Tuesday’s 108-103 win in Tampato. That the coach and the players recognized it for what it was is a sign of growth. After securing, hopefully, a Top-6 spot, all that should matter to Hawks Inc. is whether McMillan’s troops can at least avoid being swept in Woodsonian fashion to a top-tier team like Milwaukee, or otherwise embarrassed by lesser rivals like Charlotte, in the first round.
If everyone gets and stays healthy at playoff time, the prospects of the Bucks making it out of the East and to The Finals is arguably as tough as ever under the Bud regime. Getting past Joel Embiid’s Sixers and the star-studded Brooklynites (happy trails, LaMarcus) in the second and final round of the Eastern Conference playoffs would be a tall order for anybody. For the Bucks, a healthier, well-coached and gelling team like the Hawks (7-1 this month, despite missing an abundance of key players) could pose problems in the opening series, certainly more fight and adversity than Nikola Vucevic and James Ennis could put up in last year’s Bubble.
If Bud’s Bucks stop here, the eyebrows and the questions are sure to arise. Will Milwaukee want Bud to stick around? Will Antetokounmpo want Bud to stick around? Does Giannis even know what he does want? Say, Freak, if you want your team to dip into the well of fired Hawks coaches once more, Lloyd Pierce is still available, I’m just saying. Heck, why not the Bucks’ old friend, Larry Drew?
In the meantime, both clubs and these two esteemed veteran coaches are simply out to tackle one game at a time, not four. For McMillan, historically, and for Budenholzer, especially right now, the NBA regular season has been the Best of Times.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Mind if I hitch a ride to Magic City? Lou kicked me out the car.”
A guy who recently played defense on the Atlanta Hawks was intimately involved in The Dunk of the Year. But I’m sorry you missed out, Miles Bridges. You kinda had to be there.
DeAndre’ Bembry zigged, gambling to deflect a pass out to Atlanta’s own Anthony Edwards on the corner. The Timberwolf zagged, and as the rookie hesi’d and sprinted down the left baseline, Bembry was left trying to warn his two-way Japanese teammate that he might want to not get in the way, and certainly, for all that is holy, not jump.
“It was definitely something me and Kyle (Lowry) was joking on,” Bembry recalled to Yahoo Sports’ William Lou (no relation) and gameday reporters a couple weeks ago, about his rookie teammate’s naivete after being left hung out to dry during an otherwise awful Raptors-Wolves game in February. “That’s going to happen, but yeah, we try not to look back at that dunk.”
It’s always easier to move on from a spectacular play, conducted at your expense, when you eventually win the game. That was the case for the Hawks, who visit the Toronto Raptors once more in Florida (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; TSN in TOR) just two days after Clint Capela got valiantly flushed upon and the Hornets played the rest of the game as if they had already run off the floor in jubilation.
It was also the case when Edwards’ mates could point to the Jumbotron, but Bembry’s could point to the final scoreboard. The 86-81 victory in Minnesota was about to be one of the final joys of the Flo Raptors’ topsy-turvy season. Even if Bembry and Lowry wanted to look back fondly, there was a lot of awfulness in between.
Perhaps the first sign the Hawks’ season could be turning around came after the All-Star Break, Atlanta coming into Amalie Arena fresh off a recent coaching change and walking out with a rare buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer, courtesy of Tony Snell off a nifty dish from Trae Young. But the first sign the wheels were coming off the Dinos’ footmobile came about a week earlier, when Dwane Casey’s Pistons stopped by and made Tampato paste, by a 125-104 score.
On that evening, Nick Nurse’s crew had no answer for Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, Svi Mykhailiuk, Mason Plumlee and Saben Lee. Well, they had one answer, as Norman Powell tried to carry the load with 36 points. But the loss dropped the Flo Raptors to below-.500 for what looks to be the final time of the season. The defeat also presaged a near free-fall out of the playoff picture during the madness of March (1-14 that month), much of that period with the looming distraction that Lowry was certain to be moved, by team prez Masai Ujiri, on his birthday, coincidentally the NBA Trade Deadline.
At least for a few more months, Lowry remains with the organization that he, with a little help and some good fortune, guided to championship glory in 2019. Powell, however, did not make it past the deadline before getting shipped to Portland, Ujiri attaching a trade exception while getting back Gary Trent, Jr. and reclamation project Rodney Hood. Masai cleaned out much of the incumbent backcourt behind starters Lowry and Fred VanVleet (out, hip), sending Terence Davis and Matt Thomas packing for 2021 second-rounders while cutting Patrick McCaw loose.
Trent is fitting in nicely, having scored 69 combined points on back-to-back evenings in Cleveland and New York over the weekend. But with the Raps (21-33, 4-16 since March 1) back to losing three of their past four games, Lowry lugging through the games with some sort of turf toe, Pascal Siakam (25.6 April PPG; career-low 44.9 FG%, below the 45.3% from last year’s All-Star season) trading choice words with Nurse in postgame locker rooms, and OG Anunoby thinking he’s main-eventing WrestleMania with Dennis Schröder, it’s as though their heads are elsewhere, as if they left their heart in Toronto. Spicy P was Exhibit Z on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Just in the Knick of time, New York was about to Knicks the game away in the closing seconds as Toronto clawed back from 18 down in the second half. Up by just two but with a chance to seal the game away, Alec Burks lofted a lazy pass that was plucked by Lowry, and three Raptors were off to the races. Receiving the ball, Siakam had the choice of kicking it to the corner for the probable game-winner, or to get as close to the basket as possible in hopes of a layup or a shooting foul. Siakam seemed to decide he’d try to do both. Double dribble. Knicks win.
It was not the first of a comedy of late-game errors and shortcomings by Siakam (28.6 clutch FG% team-worst minus-27 plus/minus), leaving many to wonder if Pascal’s wager is that the future teammate to join him, OG and VanVleet for a return toward championship contention exists, in the form of a 2021 NBA Draft Lottery pick.
Toronto hasn’t missed the playoffs since Casey was coaching Lowry and the Atlantic Division’s last-place Raptors in 2013; Kyle was the reason that year’s pick wound up in OKC’s hands for the selection of Steven Adams. (Later that summer, Toronto acquired a future Nuggets pick from 2011’s Melo deal, and drafted Jakob Poeltl #9 in 2016). The last Lotto pick the Raptors “earned”, and kept, was Terrence Ross in 2012. So, I suspect Siakam agrees, they’re about due.
As for the Hawks (29-25), they enter today’s game as close to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference (8.0 games behind Philadelphia) as they are to Toronto (8.0 games behind Atlanta) falling out of playoff chances entirely as the #11 seed.
Atlanta won’t be able to re-animate the Young-to-Snell game-winner, as Young (bruised calf) remains questionable to play while Snell heals up his sprained ankle. Danilo Gallinari (sore foot) also remains doubtful, and there are no pleasant developments among the Hawks’ M*A*S*H ward, leaving some of the Raptors (I suppose, maybe just Nurse at this point) hoping they can win a war of attrition.
Still, the Hornets provide far more resistance to Atlanta’s advances than the Raps are likely to do, if the Hawks come out swinging as they did when they opened with a 26-10 sprint on Sunday, essential to their eventual 105-101 victory.
Brandon Goodwin (nine 1st-quarter points @ CHA, on 4-for-4 FGs), yes, Solomon Hill, and yes, Kevin Huerter (five 1st-quarter assists @ CHA) caught Charlotte off-guard, facilitating strong efforts from more usual suspects Bogdan Bogdanovic (career-high 8 threes, Hawks-high 32 points @ CHA; now back over the 40.0 3FG% line) and Capela (Hornets had one O-Reb in the quarter). If the Hawks can follow up with earlier contributions from Lou Williams off the bench, Tampato’s tent might more easily fold.
The Raps, keyed on by the charge-drawing Lowry, want to keep teams out of the interior (42.2 opponent paint points per-48, 2nd-best in NBA). But if Atlanta can continue to find a hot perimeter hand, from Bogi or elsewhere, Lowry would much rather counter on drives inside, while Nurse’s club doesn’t have the volume-shooting VanVleet to help Trent and Anunoby keep up.
The Raptors, for the moment, are the edge of the firewall that ensures Atlanta, despite their spate of injuries and early missteps, achieves at least a Play-In reservation. The Hawks need to keep piling on the points and paving on the losses, seeking their first head-to-head season sweep in ages (3-0 vs. TOR in 2010-11) from a club that has swept them over the prior three seasons.
This is a season to forget for Canada’s Team, and the more unnecessary wins, the less soon they’ll be able to look ahead to next season – knock on wood – back home. If things get dire late in the fourth quarter tonight, you might catch Siakam leading his huddled teammates in a rendition of “1-2-3, CLEARWATER!”
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I’ll allow one chair throw at halftime, Mel. ONE. Make it count!”
Excuse the good folks of Charlotte, North Carolina if they’re tuning out of social media tonight, shortly after today’s affair between their Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast in CHA and ATL, 92.9 FM in ATL).
Following up on great documentaries reviewing the NFL’s 1983 and the NBA’s 1984 draft classes, NBATV is airing “Ready Or Not”, the stories of the many noteworthy players who put on shiny, baggy suits and shook David Stern’s hand at the 1996 NBA Draft.
Charlotte’s a lovely town, I’m sure, to live in, especially when you’ve got wads of cash to stash, and it’s even a fun place to root on the local teams in teal. But on a couple occasions every year -- some predictable, some not -- a twister of commentary blows across the Queen City, the product of a combination of blissfully unaware Gen-Z’ers and millennials and crabby boomers and Gen-X’ers. The unifying sound, like an oncoming train, blares the same way every time: “The Hornets traded away WHO to get Vlade Divac?”
25 years of defensiveness and diviseness over a trade that’s become the stuff of legend will wear on anybody. When the quarter-century anniversary of the day of the 1996 Draft comes around, on July 29, and again on 8/24 Day, when the “What If?” thinkpieces make their way back around the Internet, Charlotteans will rather just dip into their shells than go around snapping at people. “12 other teams could’ve had him before he fell to us! We weren’t even trying to draft him!” Okay.
While trading away a raw high school prospect named You Know Who was arguably the second-most notorious of own-goals in NBA Draft history (as an aside: get ready, Charlotte’s getting an MLS team next year! Copycats.), it was not necessarily the worst in Bobnets/Horcats team history.
Never mind 2021, former #3 pick Adam Morrison is still crying somewhere over Gonzaga’s 2006 March Madness run, and ACC fans around town sobbed that he couldn’t at least have been Shelden Williams. Missing out on CP3 the year before, and having to settle for Raymond Felton, wasn’t much of a consolation. At least Justise Winslow’s struggles help to make everyone forget about Frank Kaminsky. When they did hit on somebody with a Lottery pick – Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker – the Charlotte brass failed spectacularly at building around them. Baron Davis might have become the exception, had then-owner George Shinn not literally screwed his way out of town.
In the middle of 2017-18, GM Rich Cho got the MJ Axe in part because, while backup guard Malik Monk (out, sprained ankle) is a’ight, he’s here while Donovan Mitchell, John Collins and Bam Outtadabyou are not. P.J. Washington is passable as a starting forward, by default, but he’s hanging around here at Spectrum Center only because Cho’s replacement, Mitch Kupchak, is still here, too, while his UK teammate drafted next, the sneering Tyler Herro, is not (statistically, passing up Herro for P.J. has been a wash, but the fawning national media can’t seem to tell).
As a backup big with the occasional open three and highlight-reel dunk, Miles Bridges is a’ight, as evidenced by his team-high 26 points in Friday’s 127-118 win against Mike Budenholzer’s Half Dollars in Milwaukee. But he’s here, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not. If you wish to find a Draft day mistake from 2018, it’s a good idea to start, and end, there.
What may become the 1996 Draft-trade reprise, from 2018, was not the finest hour for Mitch, the beneficiary of the old adage that if you can’t beat the Lakers, hire somebody the Lakers just pushed out. Yet not everything is about the top of the Draft, and not everything Kupchak and the Hornets have done in the past few years have been flops.
Literally the next hour after trading away SGA, Charlotte sent the Hawks a pair of second-rounders for their selection of Devonte’ Graham, who carried the Hornets through the dregs of last season until the pandemic disruption. While his interior scoring skills have been wretched, Graham has been the league’s premier backcourt on-ball defender (NBA-best 4.20 Defensive Real Plus-Minus, as per BSPN; only Mike Conley and Pat Beverley are in the low 3’s), a literal “3-and-D” point guard that could have been a more useful complement as a backup to Trae Young (questionable for today, bruised calf; 4th-lowest among tracked PGs with a minus-3.23 DRPM).
A couple days later, Charlotte got the least-stiff among Timofey Mozgov, Julyan Stone, Jerian Grant and Bismack Biyombo in a multi-team deal. Biyombo knows his role – block a shot, dunk a ball, try not to get hack-a-smacked, sit the heck down – and plays it well enough that he’s starting now.
With the departure of John Wall and Aaron Gordon to other teams, there remain just two NBA players who have yet to leave the team that drafted them Top-5 in 2013 or any years prior. There’s Jordan Brand ambassador Bradley Beal, with the Wizards at least for now. And there’s Cody Zeller, who has remained serviceable in Charlotte for as long as he can stay upright. The big-bag contract extension he signed in 2016 (we’re gonna need a documentary on that train-wreck of an offseason, too) comes off the books after this season, allowing the Hornets space to be players this summer (autumn?) during free agency.
Living up to his name, Kemba walked in 2019, but Kupchak still managed to get Terry Rozier for his troubles via sign-and-trade. Since leaving Boston, Terry’s jumpshot is no longer scary (40.5 3FG% this year, 40.7 percent last season), and he has embraced his role of being the reliable finisher in the clutch (3.5 clutch PPG, 0.2 PPG more than Young; 52.2 3FG%). Charlotte is 16-6 in clutch situations with a league-best +3.7 team plus/minus, spearheaded by Rozier (+4.0, best among NBA’s highest clutch scorers, min. 15 clutch games played). Mitch also pried agent Gordon Hayward free from Boston’s clutches this past year, netting extra second-rounders in the process, and folks still wonder why the Celtics don’t look so formidable this year.
The flip side of screwing up drafts so routinely is, you tend to find yourself back in similar spots with a chance to make amends. Charlotte lucked out by leapfrogging Atlanta (and Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Chicago) to wind up with the 3rd pick in the NBA Draft, and needed only to do so much work as to let LaMelo Ball fall into their laps.
Coupled with the Hornets’ crunch-time viability, Ball and the flashy play that accompanies his flashy family’s name (team-high 7.7 assists per-36), is what made Charlotte a League Pass darling. Until a broken wrist a few weeks ago derailed his nightly threat of achieving triple-doubles (made good, for the first and only time, so far, in Charlotte’s 113-105 win over the visiting Hawks back on Jan. 9), Ball’s 2.9 Win Shares metric was blowing away the rookie competition (your per-48 Win Shares leader in the rookie clubhouse? Onyeka Okongwu, naturally).
You can’t say the Hornets would have fared much better, or any worse, under the tutelage of Steve Clifford, but James Borrego has been proving himself to be capable of designing winning plays when the talent is healthy and growing together. Charlotte has suffered a few big losses in games since the All-Star Break, but no actual disappointing ones, unless you count losing by 30 in Boston last Sunday, just days after the oft-injured Hayward (out for at least three more weeks) sprained his foot. They’re back home following a six-game road trip that took them no further west than Oklahoma City.
A question. When was the last time a reigning Eastern Conference champion kept their coach and their core intact entering the following season, and then failed to win their Division? I’d venture a guess that it has been a minute. Hawks ace assistant Melvin Hunt was with then-player development coach Lloyd Pierce in Cleveland, when GM Danny Ferry’s 2008 Cavs ceded the Central Division to the Rip Hamilton’s Pistons. Coach Bud was primed to pounce, in 2015 with the Hawks and in 2019 with the Bucks, when LeBron bailed from respective locales of Miami and Cleveland, but James was essentially the core, so those teams don’t count.
With apologies to firestarter Solomon Hill, the Miami heat’s biggest loss in the 2020 offseason was starter Jae Crowder, the Villa Rican heading west to Phoenix in free agency. Literally everyone else returned. Miami added a Top-20 draft pick and sought out mid-season upgrades in the form of guys named Oladipo and Bjelica. And it still might not be enough to secure a Southeast Division title.
So, sure, at this stage of the season, this Hawks fan is getting greedy. I want another banner to gawk at when peering up in the State Farm Arena rafters next fall. Context, schmontext. Someone is going to have one that says, “2020-2021 Southeast Division Champions”, with no asterisks sewed in, and I’d much rather that joint be dangling in Georgia, than in North Carolina or Florida. Hawks fans had to wait over two decades for our last division title, why hold out any longer for another?
Atlanta (28-25) can’t win a tie-breaker over the Hornets (27-24, ahead by percentage points for 4th in NBA East), thanks to the defeats at the latter’s hands during the same week back in early January. But the Hawks could get at least one more win in hand in the race not only for a coveted 4-seed, but the Southeast Division title.
Our futbol brethren, Atlanta United didn’t sit around waiting for old-hat clubs and wannabe regional upstarts to enjoy their days in the spotlight, first. Josef and the Five Stripes entered the sport, named it – We’re the Kings of the South – and claimed it.
Even as Ball sits, the national media is prepping for Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal to hand LaMelo the baton as the marquee-ready fresh face of the NBA Southeast. Trae Young’s Hawks, however, have a great opportunity to seize not only the division, homecourt advantage over perhaps the Hornets or heat, and a momentous first-round victory, but the prevalent narrative, of who is the Southeast favorite going forward, in the process of it all. Ready, or not.
Barring a playoff meeting, it looks like the Hornets will avoid the wrath of Tony Snell (out, sprained ankle) and, in they’re lucky, Danilo Gallinari (questionable, sore foot), the latter of whom came alive 15 fourth-quarter points in the Friday’s 120-108 win over the Bulls.
Graham, Rozier and the Martin Twins, Zan and Jana, were able to sink their teeth into Young (combined 7-for-28 FGs, incl. 0-for-8 3FGs, 13 assists and 12 TOs vs. CHA in January) largely because he had next-to-no perimeter help. Everyone aside from Kevin Huerter in the 102-94 loss at home on January 26, shot 5-for-28 from downtown. Aside from Hill (3-for-5 3FGs) a few nights later in Charlotte, things didn’t get much better (11-for-40 3FGs everyone else).
The one fellow who could change the outlook today, easing things up for Young (1-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI, but 11-for-14 FTs and copious floaters for 42 points, plus 8 boards and 9 dimes) and/or Lou Williams (15 points and 3 steals vs. CHA w/ LAC on March 20), is Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogi is eager to avoid a slump after missing all four three-point attempts in Atlanta’s comeback win over Chicago (I’m told Zach LaVine is still at The Farm this morning, trying to break Wilt’s record).
Having outside shooters the Hornets must take seriously will open up the paint (CHA’s minus-1.9 paint points-per 48 is 3rd-largest differential in NBA East, worst among East playoff contenders) for Clint Capela (22-and-10 vs. CHI), Okongwu and the Hawks’ driving guards. If Atlanta is to avoid a season sweep today, they will want to do as other opponents have done and put Charlotte to bed early, avoiding a late charge led by Scary Terry.
Hornets fans will be tuning in to the game, cheering their team on in hopes of victory in this Sunday matinee of Southeast Division rivals, then turning their watching devices off and unplugging everything for 24 hours. I can’t blame them. It’s not like their team passed up on That Man for Priest Lauderdale or something.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Myyyyy kind of big, CAPELA is…”
According to the tale told by the United States Golf Association, a former manager at New York City’s prestigious Waldorf Astoria hotel and part-owner at the Biltmore, was playing a round at a golf course where he was a member, the Country Club of Montreal. The native Canadian, David Mulligan lined up, swung from his shoe-tops at the tee, and was way, way off. Looks like no Masters for you, Davey Boy!
His foursome buddies found it all the more hilarious that, instead of heading for the forest to play that ball, he reached for another one, and simply teed off again. He called it his “correction shot.” His bon amis found it more apt to name the ploy after him.
Returning to America, in the NYC suburbs at the legendary Winged Foot Golf Club, Mulligan carried the name to the game that would bring his surname fame. About a century later, the “Mulligan” is granted in the oft-casual play of many of sport. As a more professional example of its application, the Atlanta Hawks earned themselves a Mulligan from fans, for their defensive breakdown this past Wednesday against a similarly short-handed and at least equally-tired Memphis Grizzlies team.
The “Mulligan” is a fine example of how immigrants influence the nomenclature, the etymology behind so much of our American sports lingo, if not the sports themselves – word to James Naismith. German immigrants in Chicago, after all, are considered to be the fathers of “Cracker Jack,” the snack product that makes peanuts feel a bit redundant at the ballpark. It begs the question: should a Swiss-born center and Trade Deadline acquisition that’s capable of turning around an NBA lottery-level team’s fortunes be called a “Capela”? Or, rather, a “Vucevic”?
The recent and, one hopes, thoroughly uneventful retirement of former Chicago Bulls rookie and Hawks glue-guy Thabo Sefolosha leaves the NBA with three Schweiz natives. Aside from Portland’s Swiss-Turkish expatriate Eric Kanter, there’s our old friend Nikola Vucevic, the two-time All-Star newly of the Bulls, and the Hawks’ First Team All-Defense finalist Clint Capela. The latter two, born on opposing shores of Lake Geneva, could tip things off tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) in Atlanta’s first game versus an Eastern Conference foe in 26 days. That is, if Capela can be cleared after sitting out the Memphis game with a sore Achilles.
He may originate from Geneva, but Clint’s defensive prowess and impact on the Hawks (27-25), since being activated this season, has been far from conventional. By modern NBA standards, he was quite the ironman throughout Atlanta’s West Coast road trip and the extension of the Hawks’ winning streak during the first two games back home. He averaged 15.7 points and 13.7 boards while blocking 2.3 shots in 30.4 minutes per contest. Further, Swiss Bank had been money at decent percentages, for him, around the rim (57.7 FG%) and at the free throw line (73.8 FT%). Capela definitely earned at least a couple days to heal up nagging heel and hand pains.
Chicago’s newest tag team of executives, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley (“Karsley”?) want that kind of Army-knife impact for themselves. It’s why they went out at the Trade Deadline and nabbed not just one quality Euro import in Vooch (22.6 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.9 APG in 7 Bulls contests), but a second one, the German ex-Celtic Daniel Theis. While Capela was acquired by Atlanta in 2020 for what I believe was a croque monsieur with Emmental cheese, Chicago was willing to part ways with this years’ (top-4 protected) and 2023’s first-round picks for the chance to double-up on their All-Star roster count while making a sincere run at a Top-6 playoff spot.
The last two times Capela was shelved, for mid-March contests against Cleveland and Houston, Hawks coach Nate McMillan made do by elevating Italian stallion Danilo Gallinari to Atlanta’s starting five, alongside dunkin’ Deacon John Collins. Neither was available this past Hump Day, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu (13 points, two blocks, 11 boards vs. MEM, his first of many career double-doubles) and public relations director Solomon Hill proved to be valiant but, to the surprise of few, inadequate substitutes against Jonas Valanciunas and friends.
Atlanta guards, caught overcompensating for the absence of Capela and Collins to help out in the paint, found themselves susceptible to all manner of open gunners and transition runs from their Grizzlie counterparts. Kyle Anderson, shooting 54.5 percent on the night, was the sole Memphis starter making field goals below a 55 percent clip. Despite Trae Young being neutralized along the perimeter and at the charity stripe (0-for-4 3FGs, 2-for2 FTs), the Hawks’ overall offense was fine on Wednesday, but due to the slumped effort at the other end, it was like fighting fire with a Bic lighter.
New Bulls coach Billy Donovan can only hope for similar generosity from the Hawks’ defenders today. After an adjustment period that stretched a losing skid to six games, Chicago (22-28, 10th in NBA East) has begun hitting their stride. They’re looking to win their fourth consecutive contest after escaping the sidewalk-slamming Raptors in Tampa last night to expand their lead for the final Play-In seed.
Lead scorer Zach LaVine’s shot has been wayward lately (40.4 FG%, 24.4 3FG%, 72.7 FT% in his past six games). Still, Chicago hopes the Hawks’ struggles to thwart runouts after turnovers and misses will convert one end of the State Farm Arena floor into a runway at O’Hare for LaVine. (Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Dunn, jump right on into the fray).
The Bulls have been giving their top-10 first-rounder, season-long starter Patrick Williams, trial by fire ever since the season-opener, a 124-104 win by the Hawks in the Second City on December 23, pairing him lately with veteran forward Thaddeus Young.
The replacement of Wendell Carter and Otto Porter with Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu, plus, frankly, the departure of bench detritus in the multi-team deal that brought in Theis and swingman Troy Brown, affords Billy D the opportunity to re-fashion Finnish big Lauri Markkanen (18 points, 8-for-10 FGs, team-best +23 plus-minus @ TOR yesterday) as a luxury reserve. The transformation of the Bulls into a club that can go comfortably two-deep across all positions gives their postseason prospects new life.
If Gallo (questionable, sore ankle) and Capela are no-goes yet again today (like Collins, De’Andre Hunter will remain out for several more games, too), Nate Mac may want to grant Nathan Knight, the two-way big who has the size and athleticism to at least track Vucevic inside and out, and the offensively-challenged but functional rebounder Bruno Fernando more minutes at the five-spot, allowing Okongwu to instead split duties with Hill against the Bulls’ healthy and deeper frontline.
The goose and gander proverb applies today to LaVine, who had three steals last night but also committed five turnovers, and the Bulls on a SEGABABA. On the season, Chicago allows 18.4 points per-48 off turnovers (3rd-worst in NBA), and their team turnover percentage of 15.4 is equally ranked. Donovan’s club ought to be getting a tad road-weary as well, as they’ve played just once at home in their past six games, and won’t see United Center for another three, when Vucevic’s former team from Orlando pays them a visit next week.
The Hawks are demure when it comes to forcing turnovers (12.6 opponent TO%, tied-3rd worst in NBA) and, because Hawks, Cam Reddish isn’t available to help in that department, either. But the increasingly limited security around the rim should compel a change in defensive calculus for Atlanta. The team’s active leader in thefts, Kevin Huerter, has registered a goose-egg in steals in seven of his last nine games, and the Hawks would do well to have him take a gander when the Bulls’ ballhandlers are caught overdribbling.
Getting LaVine, Vucevic and Coby White to put the ball on the floor, getting strips, loose balls and outlet passes, and outracing the Bulls to the other end, should help Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic (last six games: 21.8 PPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 56.5 3FG%) create for themselves and other Hawks. LaVine’s latest starting backcourt mate and defensive stopgap, Tomas Satoransky, had 19 points, 11 assists and a pair of steals on Sunday to help Vucevic and LaVine beat the KD-less and Harden-less Nets in Chicago on Sunday. But if Atlanta takes off repeatedly in transition, the Czech guard can’t conceivably check both Hawks guards by his lonesome.
Home games today, and on May 1, represent the buns Atlanta will consume on a 13-game Dagwood sandwich of Eastern Conference opponents, a crucial stretch that could accelerate the path toward a coveted Top-6 playoff spot. The Hawks have spent most of the past 30 days watching these teams from afar, rooting on those teams’ opponents to victory while aiding them in the standings. But now Atlanta is tasked with taking care of business, directly, to sew up the postseason themselves.
If the Hawks (Play-In Magic Number: 14, Top-6 Magic Number: 19) can come away with at least seven wins over that 13-game stanza, then, indeed, that would be a tasty burger. It sure would taste better, though, with plenty of Swiss chard and Swiss cheese. And pile that cheese high, please, because as we know, too many holes is known as a “Kanter.”
RIP, DMX! Let’s Go Hawks!
“Join me in Boston, Al, and I guarantee you, within five years, we’ll be going places!”
Big Birds! Bears and Bulls! Bugs, Brontosauruses and Bucks! Over the course of this home-friendly schedule over the next two weeks, continuing with the New Orleans Pelicans in town tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS New Orleans), we can hope the Atlanta Hawks will be the busiest “Bs”, building up their hive while still delivering the biggest stings.
Two Sundays from now, the 20th-winningest coach in NBA history may be able to don his Kool Moe Dee getup, and ask the visiting Pacers, “How Ya Like Me Now?” Using the upcoming schedule to expand their distance from current 9-seed Indiana, Nate McMillan’s Hawks could effectively dwindle the Magic Number for notching a Top-6 playoff spot (currently at 21) down to single digits.
Have you missed the Hawks playing against the Eastern Conference? I sure haven’t. If we discount Cleveland and Orlando, Atlanta hasn’t faced an in-conference Play-In contender since Tony Snell’s three-pointer took out Tampato to kick off the post-All-Star schedule back on March 11. For a more legitimate Playoff threat, you have to go back over a month, to Miami on March 2. With the conceivable possibility of sweeping New Orleans and Memphis on back-to-back nights here at State Farm Arena, Atlanta (26-24) can head into the weekend bearing a better record versus Western foes (currently 13-12) than the mark against the ones in their own conference (also 13-12).
Because the Hawks generally took care of business, versus sub-.500 teams like Golden State, and took advantage of the breaks they were given during their recent West Coast road trip, versus hosts like New Orleans (22-27), the NBA West now becomes a problem many Eastern rivals will have to overcome in order to catch up. Among East seeds 5 through 11, only the Bulls (10-17 vs. NBA West) and the Hornets (11-13) have played more than 20 cross-conference games.
Miami (10-9 vs. NBA West), for example, has Atlanta’s opponent tomorrow, the Grizzlies, tonight and the Lakers before heading out West for a four-game swing. Later, they’ll have to dip over to San Antonio in a couple weeks before stopping by to face the Hawks here. New York (7-10) still has to host the Grizzlies and recuperating Lakers, along with the Pelicans twice and the Mavericks, this month, and they’ll also endure a six-game Western road trip among eight NBA West opponents in May.
Pelicans stars Brandon Ingram (irritated toe joint) and Zion Williamson (sprained thumb) remain questionable in status for today’s affair. But Steven Adams should be available to give the Hawks’ Clint Capela (available, despite a sore hand; past seven games: 19.3 PPG, 14.4 RPG, 65.5 FG%, 73.5 FT%) a harder time around the hoop. Adams returned to action in Sunday’s 122-115 victory at Houston, registering a light double-double with the aid of seven offensive rebounds.
Also back in action this past Sunday was Lonzo Ball, whose eight made buckets were all threes. That set a career-best for the guard with reformulated jumper mechanics (career-highs of 14.5 PPG and 39.2 3FG%), and his 27 points were two short of the career high from his rookie season in Los Angeles. While Lonzo had nine assists, he also had six turnovers, helping the Rockets to erase a ten-point lead in the third-quarter and go into the fourth quarter up by 3.
Helping Ball and coach Stan Van Gundy (30th all-time in NBA wins) avoid a disastrous defeat on Sunday were forwards Willy Hernangomez (7-for-7 2FGs @ HOU, 15 points, 12 rebounds) and re-energized veteran acquisition James Johnson (7-for-11 2FGs @ HOU, 18 points, 4 blocks, 2 steals).
New Orleans will need to get healthy and get on a winning stretch in order to escape the log-jambalaya with Memphis, San Antonio, Golden State, Sacramento, and OKC with one of the NBA West’s final three Play-In slots. That’s going to have to happen on the road, and the victory in H-Town raised the Pels to just 8-14 on the season. Van Gundy’s krewe parades their way up to Brooklyn tomorrow.
The Pels have plenty of interior scorers, but they’ll need someone aside from Ball getting hot from outside to keep up offensively. In addition to his team-high six assists (are you there, Eric Bledsoe?), Johnson went 3-for-4 from outside during the Pelicans’ 126-103 home loss to the similarly short-winged Hawks last Friday. Kira Lewis (doubtful for today, calf strain) also made half of his four trey attempts. But their mates were a collective 3-for-21 from the French Quarter, proving no match for a red-hot Bogdan Bogdanovic (26 points, 6-for-11 3FGs) as the half-sized Hawks roster pulled away in the second half.
Fresh off helping Joe Johnson and Team USA go undefeated during FIBA AmeriCup qualifying play in February, guard Isaiah Thomas (41.3 3FG% and 81.6 FT% last season w/ WAS, before being traded then waived by LAC) hopes to provide sparks for the Pelican offense for as long as Van Gundy can afford to keep the ten-day contractor on the floor.
The Pelicans will rely on their defensive rebounders to spur the coast-to-coast fastbreak. Since the All-Star Break, New Orleans’ 14.6 fastbreak points per-48 (3rd-most in NBA) and 55.7 paint points per-48 (2nd-most in NBA) are behind only tomorrow’s Hawks opponent, Memphis, among Western Conference clubs. While growing more comfortable with his all-around game, Bogdanovic (last 4 games: 21.5 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.8 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 1.3 TOs/game, 56.7 3FG%, 3.5 personals per game) has been quite clever at selectively applying mid-court non-shooting fouls to nip opponent runouts in the bud.
New Orleans would greatly prefer to have their three-point possessions the old-fashioned way. The hard-luck Hawks (NBA-high 80.9 opponent FT%) and the Pelicans (80.2 opponent FT%) are the only NBA clubs whose opponents have shot above 80 percent from the charity stripe. While New Orleans usually finds the iron unkind themselves (73.4 team FT%, 29th in NBA), the Hawks must be judicious hackers, making sure their intentional fouls aren’t of the shooting variety. Pausing the game clock while allowing the Pels opportunities to add to their tally, plus enjoying the pursuit of second-chances off predictable free throw misses, would continue to give them life throughout the game.
While the Pelicans and tomorrow’s opponent, the Grizzlies, have a long way to go to establish themselves as the Best of the Rest of the West, our Hawks now have a roadmap for becoming the Beasts of the Least of the East.
Unite and Conquer! Let’s Go Hawks!