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Ugh! Another PEG (Playoff Elimination Gamethread), already? We were just starting to have some fun around here! Anyways, some Tidbits.
The “Atlanta Sports” narrative is the Hawks let the head coach who sought his independence by abandoning this franchise, some four score and three years ago, walk out of town on Independence Eve with a glittery Eastern Conference trophy ball under his armpit. The competing, “Believe Atlanta” narrative ain’t tryin’ to hear none o’ that mess.
If the Milwaukee Bucks have learned anything from the 76ers, it’s that these Atlanta Hawks don’t fear The Reaper. With all respect due to the Blue Öyster Cult, and to the happy people of Starkville, Mississippi, do you know what the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals series could use? A little more Collins. We have Finals Fever, and the only prescription is, more Collins! Ring it up!
We’re going to insist that John Collins (0-for-5 FGs with neither a board nor an assist in Game 5’s troubling first quarter) really explore the studio space, this time. That goes for Game 6 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), before a rambunctious, standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, and once more in a couple days back in Wisconsin. He’s got to make enough noise, with his two-way play, that it becomes downright uncomfortable for anyone who has to share the stage with him.
At the risk of summoning the FULPers, Collins’ prior head coach, seemingly as a point of pride, indicated on many occasions his gameplans run, paraphrasing, “literally not a single play” for an athletic, energetic fella, one who was supposed to go out and rack up 20-and-10s just off vibes. Since his rookie-year coach skipped town, John has thrived on offense by waiting to be served an array of lobs, layups and open threes, often courtesy of point guard Trae Young (questionable, bone bruise in foot), while feasting on stick-backs when his teammates’ jump-shooting offense stalls and clueless opponents get lax with boxing out.
Speaking of boxing out, Collins alone cannot be blamed for the lack of rebounding presence in Game 5. Even Khris Middleton (team-high 13 rebounds on Thursday) had a field day on the glass as all five Buck Starters collected at least two offensive rebounds in Antetokounmpo’s absence. Thanks in part to early second-chances, Milwaukee’s 66-36 paint-point advantages rendered Milwaukee’s subpar shooting day (31.0 team 3FG%) and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s breakthrough (team-high 28 Game 5 points, 7-for-16 3FGs) moot. A team effort to keep the Bucks one-and-done is essential going forward, but Collins can do more to lead the way in that regard.
It is true that this is just Collins’ first playoff foray, as it is for many an Atlanta Hawk. But the constrained development, to date, is why a guy about to receive ginormous contract offers in a few weeks can look so painfully pedestrian (2-for-8 FGs in Atlanta’s Game 5 win) in halfcourt sets, especially without Young to offer guidance. After going 10-for-11 on 2FGs in the Hawks’ successful series opener, Johnny Bap has hardly made a blip on the inside (15-for-27 combined 2FGs in past 4 games) while game outcomes are still up-for-grabs.
One should note that this is only Bobby Portis’ second playoff run, the punchy Bucks forward’s first since a brief trip in 2017 with the Bulls. Yet the first-time starter, filling in in a pinch for Giannis Antetokounmpo (out again for Game 6, hyperextended knee), looked like a completely comfortable veteran in getting what he wanted in Game 5. It’s an awkward time to start running plays with Collins as a focal point, but Atlanta Playoff Basketball on Independence Day Weekend is, by definition, an awkward time.
In these NBA Playoffs (Knicks and Sixers series included), JC has managed to shoot a sturdy 64.0 eFG% on post-up plays, his 1.13 points per possession placing him a smidge ahead of Philly’s center Joel Embiid and not far from The BK’s Kevin Durant. But it’s hard to recognize this, since he’s had the option to post-up on just 1.8 plays per game, according to Synergy stats on nba.com, roughly half of Antetokounmpo’s 3.4 and a far cry from Embiid’s 8.5, or even KD’s 4.4. Collins also hardly draws foul-worthy contact (6.7% FT frequency) on those few plays.
Efficiency-wise, the only postseason player still standing who has fared better is Danilo Gallinari (1.18 PPP, on just 2.2 post-ups per game), who has shot at a slightly lower eFG of 57.1% but gets to the foul line (21.1% FT frequency). With Giannis down for the twenty-count once more, Collins and Gallo ought to receive more post-ups, peeling Brook Lopez and Portis away from helping on guards while elevating the Bucks’ risk of early foul trouble.
Whether they emanate from Young, Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter or Bogdanovic, Collins in particular has to do a better job of getting in position to receive passes on the low block, and he needs to maintain his dribble until either a decent shot goes up or he gets the whistle. Of course, it would be nice if one of his prior coaches had the power forward honing his post-up game in real time, prior to and during the regular seasons, but that issue for a more well-heeled Collins can wait for 2021-22 to get here.
We all can wait for 2021-22 to get here, but I remain hopeful our Squawkers and the rest of Atlanta Hawks Nation can do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and upright, in what will soon be a very brief interim period.
For those of you heading intown or to some friendly watering holes this evening, you’ll likely notice we have a wilder group of companions in the mix. 99 percent of us are up to some good, but there are a few jackboys, gun-runners, sliders, club-busters and raging drivers out to make “fun” for themselves on this busy weekend by spoiling somebody else’s. In what we can still hope will be a warm-up act for Game 3 of The Finals, have a great, boisterous time tonight, but be cognizant of your surroundings and avoid confrontations on your way to and from the arena and wherever you go to enjoy the proceedings.
If our Hawks still don’t fear The Reaper… we’ll be able to fly!
Happy Fourth! Believe Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks!
You may say to yourself: “My God. What have I done???”
Until 2021, many an Atlanta Hawks fan will tell you how the scene inside then-Philips Arena, during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, was as loud as they had ever heard the place. Pent-up fan emotion, from having to endure a near-decade of laughable, madcap basketball teams, owners, coaches and players, the scramble to sneak in as an 8-seed, and the venturing into town of the top-seeded opponent from a legendary franchise that fashions itself as predestined for glory, bubbled up at The Highlight Factory to tear the roof off the sucker.
At long last, on Atlanta’s home floor, plenty of things seemed to finally be coming together. There was the rise of a coveted young playmaking guard, one for whom the spiritless ownership group nearly ate each other alive over acquiring, to become a steely All-Star reserve. There was a big man with a two-time NCAA championship pedigree, for whom the elevated stage didn’t seem too big.
There was the midseason upgrade at point guard, a ball caddy who already had his moments going toe-to-ugly-toe with Shaq and Kobe. There was the backup big from That Other Georgia, who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, or step on toes, if he felt it necessary to win.
There was a forward who, while not ordained to reach the professional heights of Chris Paul, was beginning to make a nice versatile scorer and defender out of himself. There was the local high school standout who took whatever was missing between his ears and made up for it with hops and heart, who brought highlights to the Factory, and whose multifaceted nightly box score made him the darling of counting-stat-heavy fantasy hoops leagues everywhere.
All of the aforementioned were in their 20s, toiling for coach Mike Woodson, with only the incoming point guard exceeding age 26.
Running the self-satisfied Celtics out of town on a rail, and not just once, in the NBA Playoffs’ opening round was more than enough to satisfy even the most obstinate local sports fan on the fence about supporting these Hawks. Set within the context of the sub-.500 team’s relative youth with ample room to grow, being already good enough to push a championship favorite to seven games, the future was bright. The present, that spring in 2008, was looking not-too-shabby, too.
Then, suddenly, that summer.
There was one other twenty-something in the Hawks’ mix, the team’s top sixth-man, who shared the first name of the multi-faceted forward and was drafted eleven picks before the latter by Atlanta in 2004. Josh Childress was another up-and-comer being groomed as an integral part of the Hawks’ slow rise to playoff prominence.
The lanky guard from Stanford was a restricted free agent and, as Hawks’ management was wont to do, Atlanta intended to let Chillz shop around for the best offer sheet he could find, allowing the Hawks brass time to pursue other interests while preparing for the clock to be set on matching the deal.
That non-negotiating approach often served to miff players, from The Other Josh to Jeff Teague, who thought they had invested enough into the club to deserve a little back-and-forth bargaining. What was worse for this Josh, Hawks Inc. seemed to be prioritizing The Other Josh’s pending offer sheet first, while the offers this Josh was receiving, certainly not NBA-starter-level appeals, were unappetizing.
Childress and his agent, though, had an ace up his sleeve that no one else saw coming. An alpha, if you will. “Greece!”, is the word that they heard.
I have long wondered what the news of Childress’ Gambit, to forgo NBA Free Agency altogether and instead land a lucrative deal with once-proud Greek powerhouse Olympiacos B.C., did for Nigerian parents’ impressionable kids running the streets of Sepolia in northwest Athens. Specifically, one who only began playing organized basketball the year before, at the ripe age of 12.
The Michael Jordan By Default of Greece was on his way there, and that had to be a double-take moment for the young, wispy Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings. Chillz was several stratospheres removed from His Airness, but you wouldn’t know it by Childress’ 3-year, $20 million tax-free deal, the fancy Volvo and the condo floor with a swimming pool that the club reserved for his personal use. (Did I mention, in Greece, there was a major post-Olympic austerity crisis underway?)
In making Childress the highest-paid hooper ever outside of North America, Olympiacos’ investment didn’t quite pay off the way the team had dreamed. Yes, they reached the Greek League title games in each of Childress’ first two seasons there. But they couldn’t get over the hump versus hated rival Panathinaikos in either year. Their rivals basically paid a lot less for ex- Memphis Grizzlie and American expatriate Mike Batiste, the Greek League MVP, to get the job done for seven years straight.
The larger aims for Olympiacos were EuroLeague championships. The Reds fell short after reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in Chillz’ first season, and the title round in his second. And the true team stars by that time were Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza and point guard Milos Teodosic. The riches and perks delivered to an American, mediocre among his own NBA-level countrymen, to be the third-banana on a team not winning trophies, was not lost on a growing legion of angry Greeks. All that movie-star munificence, for The Ron Harper By Default of Greece, while everyone already there struggles to make ends meet? As sporting venues built for 2004 were already looking like ancient ruins? Opa!
That Olympiacos would go on to win those coveted Greek League and Euroleague titles in ensuing years without Josh, but with the leadership of guys named Acie Law and Pero, only underscored the peninsula's consternation over Childress' nationally lampooned European vacation. Not much gets past the radar that was Childress’ sizable ears. Before the third season could arrive, before his value in the NBA could spoil, Chillz opted out of his Olympiacos deal, returning to The States to take Robert Sarver’s taxable money.
“That man brought in Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire, disparagingly, of his former paycheck signer at the Phoenix Suns. When Stoudemire’s free agency period arrived, Stoudemire told the All the Smoke Podcast that Sarver bragged that the NBA All-Star “could be replaced, tomorrow.” When he took a gander at these so-called replacements, “I said, ‘Man, you got to be kidding me,’” Amar’e recalled. “So, I end up going to New York.”
No high-level free agent, by that point in 2010, was banging on doors to grab much of Atlanta Spirit Group’s money, a stash that was dwindling by the year. Josh’s overseas exploits didn’t prove to be something Atlanta would sorely miss. But the ability to develop Childress further here, versus NBA competition, as part of the organic growth of an emerging young club, felt like an opportunity only the Hawks could creatively squander.
Around town, Childress’ departure was the Jenga moment for consumer confidence in Hawks stewardship. Subsequent to the dreamy postseason of 2008, the team itself scraped through the next two years of opening rounds, only to be waxed thoroughly, at home and away, in second rounds, by teams seen as authentic superstar-led contenders.
“The Hawks looked to have a nice thing going, for a minute there,” was the old saw. “And then Josh Childress ran off to Greece, so that’s the end of that. Atlanta Sports! smh.”
Whether it’s Childress bailing for the Aegean Sea, or Thabo and Pero celebrating the clinching of the top-seed with a fateful late night out on the town in NYC, you never know precisely when the Hawks’ Jenga moment arrives, and especially not how. What you come to understand, in hindsight, is the destabilizing event causes a step back that makes it hard for Atlanta’s carefully-crafted collectives to recover.
As Game 4 unfurls here at State Farm Arena in these Eastern Conference Playoffs (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), Hawks fans can only hope that Trae Young’s step back, onto the clown shoe of a Game 3 referee along the sideline following a bad pass, won’t be just another Jenga block to toss into the fire of, “We had a good run going, BUT…” Atlanta Sports moments.
In this series with the Milwaukee Bucks, as other Hawks have struggled to be reliable offensive contributors, Young’s scoring proficiencies are essential for Atlanta to keep up with a phenom from Greece, that former 12-year-old from Sepolia who’s all grown up now.
Giannis was but 16 in 2011, the year after Childress concluded his Olympiacos run, when he was invited to play for a third-tier semi-pro basketball league, catching the eye of European and at least a couple American pro-league scouts alike. A full decade later, simply counting to ten remains a challenge at times for Antetokounmpo. But the two-time NBA MVP and 2020 DPOY has had little trouble maturing in many other aspects of the game.
Giannis has assumed the top-spot previously held by Atlanta’s Clint Capela (12.7 RPG) as this postseason’s rebounding leader (13.3 RPG). Blending his newfound strength with his eye-popping dexterity, the Greek Freak only needs teammates willing to compensate for his shortcomings at the three-point line (18.5 Playoff 3FG%) and at the charity stripe (55.1 Playoff FT%, with a few of the makes disallowable, but for the referees out here trippin’).
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!