Official Game Thread: Hawks at Pacers


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“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!

~lw3

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5:30 PM boo-boo report is like The Heart: a lonely Hunter (still out, sore knee).

No clarity on the Pacers who are a bit busy stomping out PR fires right now. Listed as Questionable are Goga, Brogdon, Lamb, and Sumner. Besides Warren, listed as Out are Turner and Sampson.

~lw3

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Magic Numerology: Hawks' Top-6 number is down to 4, tied with either one of MIA or BOS, who play each other at TD Garden on the 9th and 11th. A downer loss to the Pacers (1) would be simply a merciful stay of execution. Hornets (3) will cross their Bridges when they can get him back, but should have little problem with the Bulls today (EDIT: On second thought, Zach and Vooch are available and starting for Chicago, while Graham remains out for the Bugs). Wizards are no longer an issue.

~lw3

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9 minutes ago, High5 said:

They can’t fumble the momentum again like they did vs Detroit. Put the Pacers out of their misery.

I'm glad they're at least starting this game at 8 PM Eastern, unlike Detroit. I'm still smh'ing over the (lack of) scheduling for that one. The tip time shouldn't just be moved up when it's convenient for the home team.

~lw3

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Neglected to add that, in the East, only Orlando (11-24) has a worse home record, entering today, than Indiana (11-20). Pacers have quite a few games in hand to "catch up" with the Magic. Their remaining home slate after tonight: Wizards, Sixers, Lakers, Bucks.

~lw3

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1 hour ago, lethalweapon3 said:

Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster?

Oakland’s finest. 😊 

1 hour ago, lethalweapon3 said:

Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker.

😂 

1 hour ago, lethalweapon3 said:

be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then.

Hoping us. 🤞🏾 

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1 hour ago, lethalweapon3 said:

Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

😢 
 

A wealth of info as usual, this one went deep. Love it. Slaying us once again lw3, appreciate the time and effort. Undeniably one of the best writers in the game.

Lets not take the Pacers lightly tonight. We are on a mission.

 

GO HAWKS!

Edited by Spud2nique
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      His 6.3 APG in this series now outpaces Young (team-high 6.0 APG; as per Locked On Bucks podcaster Frank Madden, held in consecutive games below 5 assists for the first time since March 2020), as does Khris Middleton’s (6.3 APG) and Jrue Holiday’s (9.7 APG). The ball movement for coach Mike Budenhozer’s club has become a point of exploitation, in contrast to a Hawks offense (107.8 O-Rating, lowest among the NBA Final Four) that gets stilted for long stretches and struggles to create when Young isn’t initiating plays.
      Giannis’ dips, dunks, and dishes deep in the post are creating opportunities for his co-stars, who in turn create quality offensive chances for the rest of the roster. Whether it’s halfcourt heaves, awkward layup shots, or contested mid-rangers, Atlanta’s field goal makes in the two most recent games come with much higher degrees of difficulty.
      Rebounding, after Capela and John Collins (10.3 series RPG, despite 4.0 personals/game), dime-dropping, after Trae, and defense, after Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 blocks in Sunday’s 113-102 loss, which only scratches the surface of how good he looked) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.3 SPG), are near-binary in numerical production among the remnants of the Hawks’ cast.
      Hawks coach Nate McMillan could do well to consider going big earlier, introducing Danilo Gallinari as a quick sub for Bogi (listed as probable ahead of Game 4), and preserving the swingman’s weary knee for crucial defensive stops later in the contest. Bogdanovic played through Sunday’s entire final quarter but was a defensive non-factor as Middleton (20 4th-quarter points in Game 3, incl. 4-for-6 3FGs) ignited to help Milwaukee surge ahead for good.
      It wasn’t the playoffs, but two months ago, a Hawks team without Young available caught Giannis and the Bucks slipping. One night after clobbering an injury-and-illness-riddled Sixers team at home, Milwaukee flew to Atlanta and was feeling good after entering the fourth quarter up by 8 points. As was the case on Sunday, Middleton heated up in the final frame as well, with 12 of his 23 points. But so did Atlanta’s Bogdanovic and Lou Williams from beyond the 3-point arc (combined 8-for-9 3FGs).
      Meanwhile, Capela and fill-in starter Solomon Hill did just enough on that April evening to contain Antetokounmpo, while Buck teammates were of little use, at either end, on the back end of their back-to-back. In Game 3, the revelatory rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed he could serve Hill’s defensive role well, and maybe not just in a pinch.
      Whether Young (6-for-14 3FGs in Game 3; listed as questionable, bruised foot) is fully functional, fully productive, fully available, or not, some of the Traemates have to catch fire from outside if Atlanta intends to fully recover in this series. The Otherhawks (4-for-19 3FGs in victorious Game 1, 7-for-31 in Game 2) were by default a series-best 9-for-23 on non-Trae treys in Game 3, skewed downward by Bogi’s 2-for-10 outing, and are 21-for-70 in this series overall. Having the proper personnel getting back on defense is essential, too, whenever the Bucks aren’t retrieving Atlanta’s jumpshots from the bottom of the net.
      Hopefully, Young will be available to help the Hawks wage a fairer fight with Antetokounmpo and company tonight, earning Atlanta a guaranteed third home game in these conference finals while staving off the potential for elimination on Thursday in Wisconsin.
      In so doing, the Hawks will also have staved off what looked to be, on Sunday night, another Jenga moment for Atlanta Sports history. Also, it is hoped, we’ll get through the summer offseason without any others unfolding.
      John, if you get a call in a few weeks about a business opportunity from the Sultan of Brunei, please, just hang up the phone.
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      “Been There. Done That. Made The T-Shirt!”
       
      The Hawks had the Bucks dead-to-rights. In their house, Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum.
      The prize that awaited Atlanta was a date with destiny. The season before, a classic nip-and-tuck affair between Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, at hallowed Boston Garden, had the Hawks coming up on the short end but earning the admiration of NBA fans everywhere. It was far too late to establish Atlanta, in their lovely red-and-yellow jerseys, as The Team of the 80’s. But who would take the lead and rule the roost in the final full season of the decade?
      After edging the Hawks in 1988’s second-round series, the Celtics would relinquish the Eastern Conference crown for the first time in five years, to Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons. The next season, Boston lost Bird to a season-ending injury early, leaving the NBA East as wide open as it had been in recent memory. Who would challenge the new kings of the East, in their Auburn Hills palace?
      Chicago, and Michael Jordan? As far as anyone could tell, the eventual 6th-seeded Bulls weren’t ready. Cleveland, and Brad Daugherty? A breakthrough season awaited, but the core of Lenny Wilkens’ 3-seed Cavs were so young. Patrick Ewing and the Knicks? They would win the Bird-less Atlantic Division. But they finished with the exact same 52-30 record as Nique and the Hawks, who improved on the prior year’s 50-32 mark. Entering the playoffs, on the heels of the Nique-Bird duel… why not Atlanta?
      The window was open for the 4-seed Hawks, as the top-seeded Bad Boys, who easily swept the Celts, awaited their arrival. All Atlanta had to do was to Take Care of Business, on its homecourt, before a heavily partisan crowd. Their opponents? A Milwaukee club the Hawks played, and swept, in the regular season, winning all six times by an average of 11.0 points per game. The core of the same Bucks team that the Hawks bounced, 3 games to 2, out of the first round with a Game 5 home win the prior postseason.
      Milwaukee began that season at a gaudy 40-19 but stumbled across the finish line with 14 losses in the final 23 games, including two versus the Hawks, one in Atlanta by 25 points. Defensive maven Paul Pressey, whose late-season injury greased the skid, would be unavailable for the entire first-round series. Seemingly on his last legs, point guard Sidney Moncrief was about ready to retire.
      This wasn’t the Bucks’ series to win. Not until Atlanta made it that way.
      Including the prior year’s first-round faceoff, the Hawks and Bucks always held serve at home in the playoffs. That was until Game 2 at the Omni, when the Hawks could not contain super-sixth-man Ricky Pierce and Milwaukee cruised to a 108-98 win, wasting Wilkins’ 32-point effort. With the 5-game series turned to the underdogs, the Bucks were in position, at the MECCA, to close out the series upset.
      Wilkins’ contemporary, fellow All-Star and NBA All-3rd-Teamer Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle early in Game 4. Led by All-Stars Moses Malone and Dominique, plus John Battle off the bench, the Hawks capitalized and survived in OT on Milwaukee’s famous Robert Indiana floor. Cummings, like Pressey, was left with no choice but to watch from Wisconsin as the series shifted, for the last time, back to Georgia.
      For the Bucks, with their seasons on the line, there would be no leading scorer, no top defender. Problem?
      “The shot on Ehlo GOOD! BULLS WIN!” was ringing in everyone’s ears that day. Perhaps too loudly, at the Omni, for the Hawks to realize they were getting tuned up by not just Pierce, but Fred Roberts, Paul Mokeski and Jay Humphries. Bucks rookie behemoth Tito Horford didn’t have to lift a finger.
      Thanks to buzzer-beaters sunk by Mokeski and Roberts, and a plethora of missed Hawk free throws, Atlanta could not sustain a lead in any quarter. The Omni crowd felt a wave of relief when the Hawks grabbed an 86-85 lead on the Cummings-less and Pressey-less visitors, with just under three minutes to go in the elimination game. But then Atlanta let the Bucks rattle off eight straight, a Doc Rivers three-pointer proved too little, too late, and all was lost. Including, that date with destiny in Detroit.
      “This will be hard for us to get over,” Wilkins said after the Game 5 loss. He didn’t know the half of it. The next season, Rivers would be out due to injury for two months, Atlanta would sink to 41-41, 6th in the Central Division. Pete Babcock would arrive from Denver to help a busy Stan Kasten run things, and longtime coach Mike Fratello would resign after Atlanta narrowly missed the playoffs, finishing just behind Pierce’s Bucks, coach Lenny’s Cavs and Reggie Miller’s Pacers.
      With Jordan answering the call in 1991 to overtake the Pistons, not Dominique in 1989, the window for the Hawks’ Finals hopes had closed. For at least a few more years.
      Taking Care of home. It’s what likely would have made such a difference for Wilkins and his Hawks at the Omni, as their fates entered the 1990s. With his statue now perched at the entrance to State Farm Arena, and the balance of power in the NBA East once again up for grabs in the 2020s, Taking Care of Home is what would make the difference for a fresh, new group of Hawks to boldly go where no Atlanta team has gone before, the NBA Finals.
      The common denominator? The visiting Milwaukee Bucks (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame Coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), in town for Games 3 and 4. No worries, Atlanta! Tito and Mokeski retired long ago.
      Despite a washout loss in Game 2 of this series, the underdog Hawks upset Milwaukee in Game 1, granting themselves the opportunity once more to maintain homecourt advantage and close out coach Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks in no more than six games. But this is a far more challenging visitor than the ’89 Hawks faced, thanks to the whirling dervish that is Giannis Antetokounmpo around the paint.
      Giannis was a rolling, spinning highlight reel in Milwaukee’s 125-91 win on Friday night, but he didn’t need to put up pinball-tilting figures (25 points, 3-for-4 FTs, 9 rebounds in 2.5 quarters). Teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton did the dirty work in pestering Atlanta ace Trae Young (2021 Playoffs-high 3 assists, 9 TOs, 1-for-8 3FGs) while Holiday, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton (combined 9-for-12 3FGs) hit the key jumpers Atlanta (Traemates combined 8-for-28 3FGs) could not. Multiple Bucks chipping in to balloon the lead gave Giannis, his fellow starters and, by extension, Atlanta’s starters, a respite ahead of Game 3.
      The lack of a secondary ballhandler production, either off the bench or sharing the floor with Young, is a challenge that coach Nate McMillan and the Hawks have to overcome in this three-day homestand. McMillan leaned on Young to sort out his Game 2 struggles to make better reads and connect with teammates for too long. Deploying Lou Williams for longer stretches, as a substitute for either Trae Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic, in combination with a back-in-action Cam Reddish, could make for better balance in the Hawks backcourt.
      With Atlanta getting gashed on the boards in Milwaukee, sixth-man Danilo Gallinari has to expand his focus beyond his patented up-periscope jumpshots and help secure rebounds on defense, when John Collins and Clint Capela are occupied with Antetokounmpo and/or Lopez. Having to rely on Solomon Hill to lead the bench in minutes, as became the case once Atlanta waved the white flag in Game 2, is not a scenario conducive to securing homecourt victories.
      Both Eastern Conference Finals entrants have reason to celebrate reaching this stage. Milwaukee tried tanking in Giannis’ rookie year, were rewarded with Jabari Parker and Thon Maker during the come up, but eventually realized acquiring a sound cast of savvy vets and scrappy prospects around their emerging supernova was the best approach. The Hawks weren’t huge winners in the NBA Draft Lotteries during their rebuilding phases, either. They aren’t tying their successes solely on the haul of Lottery picks, including Reddish and the injured De’Andre Hunter, to get them to this stage and pull them through. Not this year, anyway.
      If Atlanta comes away from Games 3 and 4 with a decided advantage, it’s because veteran supporters, from LouWill to Gallo, stepped up their games when called upon. With better contributions from developed non-Lottery talent like John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks returning to more competitive rebounding, timely shooting, and proper closeouts on the Bucks’ shooters, will aid in Taking Care of Business before its home fans. This remains the Bucks' playoff series to win, only, if Atlanta allows it to be that way.
      With a year-round focus on competitanking for future game-changing talent in the rear-view mirror, Hawks fans are no longer feeling a draft. Yet here, in the Hawks’ downtown arena, fans recognize there remains, unmistakably, an open window. Take Care, Atlanta!
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      “So, I was playing H-O-R-S-E with Bobby Portis, and…”
       
      (tied up all day tomorrow... sorry for the super-early entry! Go Hawks! ~lw3)
      Harry the Hawk could only look on, in horror.
      Fooling around while entertaining fans at the Phoenix Suns Arena, Harry and a small collection of other mascots were simply killing time, schmoozing attendees and keeping the kids’ rapt attention on an otherwise dull All-Star Saturday afternoon.
      The goal for the mascots, on this warm winter day in 2009, was simple. Take a bunch of halfcourt shots, and hope one or two go in. Always a good way to keep the fans lathered up.
      Alas, Bango the Buck was out here Doin’ Too Much.
      Harry, as we Atlanta Hawks fans know, has long been quite the daredevil. Diving off the corner stands into a hidden landing pad in the tunnel below. Demonstrating, with smug pride, his impeccable balance along a rail, then playing off the agony of his sore pellets after slipping and getting racked. Skidding down a flight of stairs in a fan section.
      The difference, though, is every stunt Harry did for our guffaws was a bit. You knew, going in, whatever Atlanta’s mascot would do would be well planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed. Bango, Milwaukee’s mascot, just runs out on the floor and does… stuff, for doing stuff’s sake. It’s the latter’s seemingly reckless, pompous nature that made him the pride of Milwaukee sports and established him, with Harry, Rocky, and The Gorilla, among the best mascots the NBA has to offer.
      On this afternoon, to Bango, the thought of dudes in anthropomorphic costumes hoisting shots from just beyond Trae Young range, as entertainment, wouldn’t do. Flexing his acrobatic skills and dexterity, Bango managed to climb the stanchion, standing behind the glass where the halfcourt heaves were directed. It’s nothing to Bango, something he does often to seize the crowd’s attention. Showing up The Association’s other gravity-bound mascots was an extra benefit in Bango’s mind. “Betcha can’t do it like me! Nope!”
      But on this occasion, rather than sitting on the rim, presumably to allow the bit to keep going, or just staying behind the glass, Bango ventured to stand atop the rim, his big, furry hooves holding him up on 36 square inches of back iron as he encourages his fellow mascots to keep right on jacking up shots.
      Even Harry the Hawk knew this was too much for a bird’s-eye view. Later that same year, Ultimate Rap League battle-rapper Conceited, while clutching a mystery beverage in a red SOLO cup, made a face that would become an indelible meme some seven years later. But at this time, that same, pursed-beak reaction shone right through Harry’s get-up. “Uh-oh. Not a good idea, Bango! But, okay, fine. You do you!”
      Embodying the spirit of his franchise, Bobby the Bobcat (maybe that was his name, does it matter, really?), was oblivious. Before Bango could firmly establish his footing, Bobby fired off a shot that ricocheted off the deer’s, er, midsection and plopped into the basket below. Nothing but Nu, umm, Net! The Arizona crowd, just happy to enjoy the air conditioning and not stuck outside watching Joe Johnson playing H-O-R-S-E, goes halfway between mild to wild.
      After taking in a stunning shot in more ways than one, Bango played it off as best he could, applauding the sunglass-clad bobcat for his success. But, then… 
      Bango slips. He attempts to gather himself by clutching the top of the backboard with his fuzzy hand. But that proved no match for Newtonian physics. THROUGH the rim goes the nearly seven-foot beast, antlers and all. Oh, Deer.
      As TNT play-by-play man Kevin Harlan would say, “Up High! And Down Hard!”. It wouldn’t be a clean swish, though. Bango’s left hoof got caught up between the rim and the netting, leaving him momentarily dangling as clueless Bobby is still at the sidelines, high-fiving the fans to celebrate his own accomplishment.
      Only The Raptor makes a half-hearted attempt at attending to Bango, once the ruminant twists free and finally makes his crash landing on one-and-a-half legs, writhing along the hardwood below with what would be diagnosed and reported as a torn ACL.
      Nonetheless, it’s still a bit, and Harry understands mascots can’t scare the kids in the stands by showing legitimate concern for his misguided colleague’s well-being. The banged-up buck gets it, too. He hops up as best he can, waving to the crowd as he hobbles away, as The Show must go on. Likely muttering under their breaths, Harry and the Wizards’ Skyhawk-looking dude simply skip off into the tunnel. Deal with those torn ligaments in the back. It’s Red Panda Time!
      Riding high and smelling themselves is about where the team that Bango reps found themselves, in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals’ Game 1. The Milwaukee Bucks felt the momentum on their Fiserv Arena floor surging toward a double-digit lead over the happy-go-lucky Hawks. Losing focus on the things that mattered most, they started slipping: forgoing coach Mike Budenholzer’s ball-movement schemes to settle for ”You do you!” iso-ball, aimless passes, blown bunnies, and abject failures at boxing out to secure defensive rebounds in the clutch.
      As Bango’s Bucks lick their wounds while pretending, for the sake of the stunned crowd, that There’s Nothing To See Here, the team Harry represents, the Atlanta Hawks, have a chance in Game 2 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) to saunter off Milwaukee’s floor and exit their arena for the final time in 2020-21.
      The Hawks earned this opportunity when teammates hopped on the cape of Trae Young (Playoff career-high 48 Game 1 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds). Then, they executed their fundamental roles so as not to spoil their magical carpet ride.
      Does Atlanta deserve to be standing eye-to-eye with the Bucks? Bear in mind, Kevin Durant dropped 48 points for the higher-seeded Nets in an elimination game, a contest that Milwaukee won (thanks to KD’s toenails at the three-point line). It comes down to which star makes the best use of their teammates, and early on in this series, it’s Trae 1, two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo 0.
      I’ve been talking until I’m Papa Smurf about how we’re waiting for Peak Hawks to take hold, how just a game or two of optimal two-way, 48-minute ball under coach Nate McMillan’s direction would make such a difference in the outcomes of Atlanta’s playoff series. Ultimately, the pressure is not on Atlanta, but on the so-called favored, higher-salaried teams to play Peak Favorites. When they lay so many flaws bare, they leave themselves susceptible to the underdogs that are just hanging around, staying within striking distance. Then, suddenly, the favorite looks every bit like the underdog.
      For Milwaukee to avoid slipping through the hoop once again tonight, it means dropping drop coverage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll, with defensive guards committing to going over on screens, and forwards protecting the rim when Giannis, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and center Brook Lopez dare to step further out.
      One of Atlanta’s advantages coming into the playoffs is they’ve played all season (and, frankly, some of the prior ones) missing an essential roster component and/or adjusting to accommodate a key player returning off injury management. Whereas the Hawks’ offense has hardly skipped a beat with the hampered Bogdan Bogdanovic, and without second-year pros De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, teams like Philly seemed at a loss on how to adjust, without Danny Green as a corner shooting option and as an extra defender to hurl at Young.
      A similar theme seems to be taking hold with Milwaukee. Fifth on the team in regular season minutes played, Donte DiVincenzo’s absence due to his season-ending ankle injury has been a struggle for Coach Bud to compensate.
      Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and veteran Jeff Teague (combined 1-for-7 Game 1 3FGs) struggled mightily to hang with Young, and the disparity widens when their offensive contributions are muted. Given Milwaukee’s limited in-season development, slim depth and short rotations, Budenholzer can’t turn to rookie Elijah Bryant or two-way guard Axel Toupane to step up on Donte’s behalf. Acquired for Torrey Craig from Phoenix at the trade deadline, Cash Considerations isn’t of much use, either.
      That leaves Khris Middleton, also a dud in Game 1 (0-for-9 3FGs) to live up to his All-Star and Olympic-level expectations, and for Giannis to occasionally assist in meeting Young and Atlanta ballhandlers off the screens. To throw Milwaukee defenders further off-kilter, Young’s teammates (8 combined Game 1 assists; 8.7 APG vs. PHI; 10.8 vs. NYK) should be mindful that they can also pass the ball amongst each other, especially around the horn when Young draws the defense inward, and that not every receipt from Trae is definitively the best shot during a possession.
      After a few well-drawn plays go right, and when the lead is working in their favor, Milwaukee might risk making the same fatal mistake conducted by recent Hawks opponents, of playing laissez-faire basketball, waiting for the visitors to fold and bow themselves out of the series. If they veer off-course from the gameplan and take too many unsound risks again, the Bucks will find themselves once more caught like a bunch of Bangos, staring catatonically into the hypnotizing, shimmering headlights of Trae Young. Poor Harry can hardly bear to watch the aftermath.
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3