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The Philadelphia Was Up By...
I’ll be real with y’all, I don’t do PEGs (Possible Elimination Gamethreads) terribly well. So before I put quick thoughts together about Game 7 between the 76ers and our amazing Atlanta Hawks in Philadelphia (8 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), here are a few season-oriented Tidbits I wanted to roll out there.
I got my answer to a question I posed in the season-opening thread about the theme of this Hawks campaign: Rested Development? Or, Arrested Development? Turns out the answer is decidedly, “Both.” Thank you, Magic 8 Ball!
The work put in during the elongated layoff served to benefit Trae Young, the recuperated Clint Capela, and De’Andre Hunter quite well. While Hunter’s burgeoning confidence was the biggest surprise, Cam Reddish struggled mightily in his sophomore season, before injuries for both cut them short. All will continue to improve, given a return to a steadier conditioning regime and schedule next season. In the meantime, Atlanta can take pride in becoming the best team, in the East, among those left out of last season’s Bubble.
Have I introduced you to your favorite NBA team’s principal owner? Going forward, please be sure you spell his name right. This is Mister Tony Re$$$$$ler. This man has been chomping at the bit to spend, spend, spend, and not just on real estate and arena swag. Don’t think this Beverly Hills mogul isn’t looking admiringly at Clippers owner Steve Ballmer right now.
Team prez Travis Schlenk is here to ensure the Hawks owner isn’t just spending for spending’s sake. Nonetheless, we are about to enter Hot Billionaire Summer. Re$$$$$ler is about to match a big-bucks offer sheet for John Collins, like it or love it. Too rich for your blood? Not for Tony Our Tiger! Besides, ask 76ers owner Josh Harris if Al Horford is still burning holes through his pockets.
Re$$$$$ler’s about to lock down Trae Young to a max contract extension. Because, duh. Young is displaying why it was so critical not to settle for bowing out during, or before, the Play-Ins. This is already, on a good day, a title contender, because of the level-headedness and stewardship of young Trae. We’re trying to get where the Sixers (roughly $30 million higher team payroll) already are, where even on a bad day, we’re a title contender.
Schlenk wouldn’t know for sure on 2018’s Draft Night, but the lack of respect for Young at NBA Awards time, relative to his trade partner in Dallas, probably saves his boss a few coins at extension time. Weirdly enough, it turned out the trade deal may have saved Schlenk his own job, too. Oh, and if Re$$$$$ler is feeling a little frisky after Trae’s extension gets inked? Have you all met Green Velvet?
The most pressing items on Tony’s expense sheet? A harness and grapple line. Just in case the 76ers hold a higher score than the Hawks in the final second of today’s action, when that final buzzer sounds, Re$$$$$ler is going to drop down like Sting from the rafters and hand Nate McMillan a multi-year coaching contract deal, and a Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus pen. Heck, he might even let McMillan keep the little scribbler.
Nate may throw in some riders before he inks the deal. Can my son Jamelle (Ben Simmons’ sister’s ex, by the way) join the staff? “Sure. Happy Father’s Day.” Can LP come back on board, too? May I pry Gary Payton from Oakland? “Done and done.” What you want? Baby, Re$$$$$ler’s got it!
What’s this I’m hearing, about some NBA Draft Lottery in a couple days? That’s nice. How would I want it to shake out if I had my druthers? Houston. OKC. Minnesota (sorry, Warriors). Chicago (nah-uh, Orlando, no double-dipping this year!). That’s all for Draft Lottery talk for awhile.
If Trae wants to go full Tokyo Drift, go for it! As long as he understands he’s sitting beside LP the whole time while Coach Pop lets elder guards like Dame Lillard go for the Gold, more power to him! Don’t let me catch Derrick White out there with the Albanians, though. Whatever he decides, be safe out there!
The real Summer Games? Cam! Gwu Tang! Nate Knight! Skylar Mays! Maybe B-Goody? Our next first-rounder! Whether it’s to continue the upwardly mobile development on the main roster, or firming up a roster spot in College Park, I look forward to seeing them all in Las Vegas!
Oh, yeah, so, Game 7. I don’t have much, I just hope Coach Nate has more up his sleeve than I can conjure up. Shooters gotta shoot, and at this point, they gotta swish. If we can assume we’re not going to have Bogdan Bogdanovic ver. April.0, if any edition of him, then we’ll need major two-way performances (getting stops, hitting shots) out of Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari.
We may not have our MLK jerseys on, but remember, Collins and Capela, when the trolls on the Sixers start trolling, violence is not the answer!
Collins will have to make more out of his touches, early in the game and not simply once the Hawks have to scramble out of deep holes. Lou, Gwu and the bench mob (when blended in with the top line) must outshine their counterparts, because Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the Sixer starters are bound to overdo everything to salvage their season.
One more tidbit.
The Real 2020-21 MVP? You, the fans. There has been a lot to endure. The 2020 playoff run interceded by a pandemic, having to wait over eight months before the Hawks could make personnel moves, over nine months before they could tip off again. The early promise of 2021 derailed by injuries, bad losses and a coach upheaval.
Bigger than all of that, keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy and even-keel, as best we could. Much like the Hawks, we’re all still standing! Whether this Hawks run lasts for a few more hours or 32 more days, I hope Hawks fans have found ample moments of worthy joy throughout the journey. Celebrate the Hawks, tonight, but be sure to take time to celebrate yourselves and each other.
Happy Father’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks!
Home. Upon reflection… it’s where the traeHeart is.
“SIXER FANS! Get on your feet! Give it up, Philadelphia! Let’s have a round of applause, for your, legendary, ALLEN! IVERSON!”
Allen Iverson steps onto the Wells Fargo Center floor. He’s got on his casual gear and his obligatory Sixers cap, sometimes his old jersey on top. The Hall of Famer rings the ceremonial Liberty Bell knockoff, waves to the Philly crowd, and bathes himself in waves of rare Philly adulation.
A.I. is being paid, by the Sixers, to be among the Philadelphia crowds. Keeping up appearances is essentially his job. As soon as 76ers games near their end, Iverson glad-hands the people he’s supposed to glad-hand, steps into a waiting car, and heads home. Via the airport.
These days, Iverson hops on the first thing with wings smoking to return to his country-club home hundreds of miles away, currently in Charlotte. For many years after his NBA career reached its twilight, this “work trip” concluded by alighting at Hartsfield-Jackson for the ride back to his palatial mansion not far from “Da Nawf”, the places in and around Gwinnett County, that Lou Williams and Migos calls home.
Julius Erving makes this honorary commute, too. He’s been an Atlanta resident, living it up with family in Buckhead Not City and Sandy Springs for the better part of the past decade. “This is the real deal. It feels right. It’s wearing right,” the Doctor shared with the AJC’s Steve Hummer, back in 2012, of settling in the South, and specifically in The ATL.
Another periodic Sixer Bell Ringer and fan favorite (no, not you, Al Horford), Dikembe Mutombo was traded out of Atlanta to help then-MVP Iverson’s team make their majestic run to The Finals. Yet the NBA Global Ambassador never really left here. His son and his private-school buddies were instrumental in organizing the youthful, eye-opening social-justice protests in swanky Buckhead last summer.
Charles Barkley calls the Atlanta region his home, giving the corpulent former Sixers great a place to work and eat and hobnob and chill not far from his Alabama roots. Like A.I., like Dr. J., Sir Charles will come to Philadelphia, when summoned, for some honorary bit like a statue unveiling. But it seems that none of the greatest Sixer legends of the past four decades choose to kick back in, say, Bryn Mawr, to bask in the glow of their past pro-ball glories.
The French Riviera, the English countryside, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Only the greatest of places are where Sir Elton John chooses to rest his weary head. When he spends his days toiling on the East Coast of North America, the global icon and legendary musician spends his evenings at his posh high-rise condo in Buckhead, with its skyline views spanning in multiple directions. Goodbye, Yellow Brick. Hello, Peachtree Road!
In a couple weeks, thousands will huddle around Penn’s Landing to take in the fireworks, with his soaring 1975 opus serving as background. But as Elton wakes up on many mornings and stoops out on his patio, Georgia sunshine, not “Philadelphia Freedom,” shines on him.
2021 makes it 30 years for John as an Atlanta resident. “People always ask me, ‘Why do you have a place in Atlanta?’”, he told the AJC, after finding year-round L.A. living to be overbearing, and New York a tad too dangerous. “It’s because people here have always been that nice to me… I’ve always been welcomed. I feel at home.” You love Atlanta as much as anywhere in America, Elton? “Yes, I do!”
Shirley Franklin, a Philadelphia native and Penn grad, ran for Mayor, and won. In Atlanta. Her fellow high school alum, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, saw her future was best set in this town, too, moving here to audition and ignite her groundbreaking rapping and singing career, among other items.
Philly native Kyle Pitts? Welcome to Atlanta, where, at least for now, Philly-burb native Matty Ice plays. Remember “Free Meek Mill?” The legendary Philly rapper was freed, and already has been such an advocate for criminal justice reform in this town, he was bestowed with an honorary “Meek Mill Weekend” by Atlanta’s city council.
For so many individuals who came-of-age or reached heights of professional glory in connection with Philadelphia, Atlanta and the South has become the place of choice when it was time to grow up, and/or settle down. The celebrity and talent pipeline from the heart of the mid-Atlantic to the heart of the mid-South is emblematic of decades-long trends.
Census data projects the Atlanta metropolitan area is bound to outgrow Philadelphia’s four-state-large metro’s population by next year, if it hasn’t happened already. Philly in 2019 was among just five U.S. markets that could boast of having at least 2.5 million TV households, as per Nielsen. This year, that shortlist is up to nine, Atlanta having joined three other US metros. The upshot? If you’re inclined to view the 215 as a premier, big-city American market, it’s time to accept the 404 is right there with them.
Long self-identifying as a little-brother rival to NYC, Philadelphia has long taken solace by peering its nose down upon Atlanta and many of the metros that make up the NBA’s Southeast Division. This Eastern Conference Semifinals series has been instructive for die-hard supporters of the Sixers and old-media brand-name teams around the league. Whether we create it or take it, the talent in Atlanta, the city, and on the Atlanta Hawks, the team, are neck-and-neck with whatever they throw out there. If not better.
If the Hawks are better, they will have the opportunity to prove it by toppling the conference’s top seed tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) before a standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, clinching an NBA Final Four berth at home for the first time since 1970. The opportunity presented to Atlanta has been well-earned, most recently by way of Wednesday’s epic comeback from 26 points down to prevail in Game 5, 109-106, before a cheesesteak-choking capacity crowd at Philly’s Wells Fargo Arena.
Former Sixer assistant Lloyd Pierce was supposed to be another of the many who left The City of Brotherly Shove in his prime for a chance to flourish here. One can’t help but wonder, are LP and his old boss, ex-head coach Brett Brown, palling up to watch this Hawks-Sixers series together?
The Browntree of coaching has dried up, and it got chopped down with the quickness. Yet Brown might still be in his head coaching chair, and not Doc Rivers, were he able to see the 2019-20 season through in Philadelphia. Brown’s Sixers had the best home record in the NBA, sitting at a gaudy 29-2 before the pandemic struck. But that season’s edition was a paltry 10-24 away from home, and a lackluster Florida Bubble performance by the 76ers sealed his fate.
Brown’s successor, Rivers conducted a more balanced effort in this regular season, guiding the Sixers to a 29-7 record at home, before a growing cluster of satisfied Phans, while finishing respectably above-.500 in away games (20-16). It’s what gives him and The Farm’s visitors confidence they can pull off a second playoff road win in this series, as the Hawks have already done, and then dare Atlanta to close out Philly for a third time in their building on Sunday.
“We will be back here for Game 7,” Glenn vowed. Rivers shared with players and the media how he lost at home to another former team of his, the Spurs in 2015, before bouncing back to have his Clippers win Game 6 in San Antonio and the rubber match back in Los Angeles. The Clips would advance, but lost the second-round to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Jason Terry and backup center Clint Capela’s Rockets in seven games. James Harden chipped in a bit in that series, too.
“Chris Paul made an amazing shot at the end,” recalled Rivers of the comeback in 2015’s first-round series by L.A. “Unfortunately, he almost tore his hamstring doing it, but he made a big shot.” Philadelphia can only hope they won’t need Joel Embiid (“questionable,” small meniscus tear) to break a leg, Broadway-style or otherwise, to keep the #1-seed Sixers’ season alive.
It would be preferable for Embiid (32.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 4.6 APG) to have his supporting cast of Sixer stars come through each time, such that he won’t be expected to make the season-saving plays at the ends of games. Ben Simmons (11.6 PPG, 4th on the team; team-high 8.4 APG) and Tobias Harris have been passing, but passive, as games wear on, entrusting Joel and Dwight to snare the key rebounds on defense, while leaning heavily on Seth Curry (21.4 PPG after his Game 5 tear, 57.9 3FG%), Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle to keep the hot perimeter hands.
Embiid has given it his all trying to fry Capela and the Hawks at the starts of games, but in the second halves of losses (1-for-5 FGs, Philly’s only 2 assists and 1 steal in 4th quarter of Game 5), he wound up looking more like the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich worker meme. Every 76er on Wednesday, aside from Curry (4-for-4 4th-quarter 2FGs, but no made threes) and Embiid, were non-factors in the rebounding, scoring, passing and defensive departments (combined: 0-for-7 FGs, 2-for-4 FTs by Ben, 2 O-Rebs by Dwight, no D-Rebs, no assists, no steals) as Atlanta completed their historic surge in the final frame.
As dominant a scorer as Embiid has been, it has come at the expense of Capela and Atlanta seizing back control of the glass. Joel’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting in the first quarter of game 5 was accompanied by just a pair of defensive rebounds, one fewer than Curry and fill-in starter Furkan Korkmaz. What gains Philadelphia should be making by the Hawks’ early shooting woes have been nullified by Clint and John Collins’ active work on the offensive glass. Simmons (5.4 RPG, down from 7.2 in the regular season), getting outrebounded in this series by Hawks reserve Danilo Gallinari (5.6 RPG in 53 fewer minutes), seems reticent to mix things up around the rim.
Atlanta’s Trae Young, meanwhile, got the assistance he needed when it ultimately mattered. In each of the past two victories, Trae’s nifty, near-iconic dishes for game-changing threes by Collins has The Baptist considering changing his nickname to Big Shot John. Gallinari, defended by the diminutive Curry in the clutch, found himself in a “Game, Blouses” mood. And the rug was pulled out from under Rivers and Philadelphia’s gameplans by a Snellville high-schooler they drafted back in 2005.
No one was ready for Lou Williams except Lou Williams (7-for-10 FGs in 2nd half of Game 5). He was deployed in a small-ball backcourt by coach Nate McMillan that contrasted, late in the last game, with Atlanta’s larger frontline, featuring Gallo with Capela and Collins. Having Danny Green (out, calf strain) rendered a fashionable sideline dancer has made it tougher for Rivers to defend Williams and Young individually, much less together.
Once pondering retirement after getting traded by the Clips in mid-season, the ATL native Williams, in his second go-round with the Hawks has the opportunity to bring the joy of a conference finals berth to an adoring home crowd. Lou’s, and Doc’s, former employer has the chance to do the same later this evening, somehow for the first time in that franchise’s history.
The Hawks can put a dash of lemon pepper on the Sixers’ season tonight, if they can get positive contributions at both ends from slumping starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (combined 0-for-8 3FGs, 0 FTs, 2 assists, 1 steal and 5 rebounds in Game 5). Bogi, by himself, collected 19 assists to just 4 TOs in the five-game Knicks series. But along with Red Velvet, they have struggled to serve Young as secondary play-makers (combined 19 assists, 18 TOs through Game 5) versus Philly’s more adroit and lankier defenders.
Each swingman must avoid hesitating and allowing effective Sixer closeouts on spot-up shots early in the game. As Embiid wears down or Howard hovers closer to the rim, with Harris and Simmons overcompensating, drives for floaters, pocket passes, lobs and kickouts will abound, freeing up not only Young and Williams off-ball, but Capela or Onyeka Okongwu inside, and Collins or Gallinari outside. Better reads, and swifter reacts, out of Huerter and Bogdanovic would allow Atlanta to start strong, for once, and finish stronger.
It sure would be nice to rest, on the laurels of, “We pushed the conference’s best team to seven games!”, and look forward to turning the page to the promise of next season. But then one looks up the road, at what was the 2020 Bravos.
Having beaten top-seeded Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium twice already to start the NLCS, Atlanta’s baseball club, up 3 games to one, had the vaunted Dodgers dead-to-rights in Truist Park, with a chance to claim a trip to the World Series. They blew that game, had to fly back to L.A. for Games 6 and 7, and came home empty-handed.
But, hey, we got the shine of the reigning National League MVP, and the youthful exuberance of Ronald Acuna and his budding relationship with manager Brian Snitker. Coming into 2021, most Atlanta fans figured, Mike Soroka will be back on the mound! Ender Inciarte has nowhere to go but up! If we can keep our closer, shore up the bullpen, bring back the NL’s top home-run hitter and RBI-maker, watch out! Stir it up, baby!
Well, we’ve turned that page only to find their chance to Run It Back has hit a concrete wall, even breaking a hand in the process. Fab Five Freddie’s hitting infield flies. Soroka’s Achilles is still on the mend. Inciarte is yo-yo’ing on and off the bench. Marcell Ozuna was a figurative, and allegedly literal, choke job. And now Acuna and Snitker are squabbling over “stupid” matters.
The good news for the Hawks is that their executive oversight doesn’t consist of a mainframe computer in a suburban Colorado office park. Still, there’s no need to presume the best chance to reach the conference finals, or The Finals, is off somewhere in a future season. With a growing legion of fans applying wind to their sails, Atlanta should approach tonight with a sense of F.U.N. -- the Fierce Urgency of Now -- then let the chips fall as they may.
This sports town deserves a celebration worthy of its beautiful home floor. Besides, Hawks fans really aren’t feeling like one more long trip to Philadelphia should be necessary. Quite a few Philly legends, satisfied with life here in the Dirty South, would rather not trifle with a Game 7 call-up, either. That, I Guar-On-Tee.
As the great Doctor J said of Atlanta, “This is the real deal." Indeed, it feels right.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I'm going down double digits at halftime. Then, I'll get the Sixers right where I want ‘em!”
Alright, Believe Atlanta, I’m trying to be pragmatic here!
2021 wasn’t supposed to be Finals Szn! Yet our Atlanta Hawks are just a 2-1 record, at worst, from becoming the Eastern Conference Finalist that only the Believing-est of Believe Atlanta Believers could believe.
No one on the roster should be looking ahead. Not past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, who still get a shot at securing their manifest destiny by holding down home court, including today’s matchup at Wells Fargo Center (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). Not past the team who was holding an authoritative 2.5-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series until Joel Embiid’s tire began hissing air in the back half of Game 4.
This team’s fanatical supporters, however, sure can peek ahead. If the Hawks can replicate what they did in New York City and spoil the hosts’ hopes not just once, as they’ve already done, but twice, they could very well be back in NYC once more, tipping off the Conference Finals against The Big 2.25 of Brooklyn. Seth Curry Piercing the Sixers’ final attempt in Game 3 allowed the Hawks put ice on a monumental comeback and even this series. Six grueling playoff wins down, six to go!
What’s wilder, in this series, is we have yet to see Peak Hawks out of the players that coach Nate McMillan rotates on and off the floor. This isn’t to say we need Danilo Gallinari (1-for-6 FGs in Game 4, 7-for-18 3FGs in series) going all 10-Threes-on-the-Celtics-in-the-MLK-jersey to help Atlanta knock off the Sixers. Just that it would be pleasant to see a full game where the reality of multiple Hawks players hitting their perimeter shots (30.0 team 3FG% in Game 4, up slightly from 26.1% in Game 3, also in Atlanta) is as potent as the pervasive threat.
It’s not enough to suggest that the Hawks are simply skating through, thriving solely off the 76ers’ mistakes. More so, Ice Trae is cross-country skiing through slush. The lack of hot-hand shooters has made it tougher for Young (25 points, career-high 18 assists in Game 4; youngest NBA player with 18+ playoff dimes, per Elias Sports, surpassing Atlanta’s Spud Webb in 1986) to speed-skate around the myriad of Sixer defenders thrown his way, and to make-good on his few good-look shots beyond the paint (41.5 FG%, 31.4 3FG%).
Trae is credited on NBA.com stats with 19.9 Potential APG in these playoffs, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 20.4 in Washington’s first-round loss to Philly, and well ahead of Chris Paul (14.8, a number that’ll be frozen for a while) among still-active postseason performers. He is creating offense with far fewer passes (55.7) than Sixers counterpart Ben Simmons (69.0 made passes per game, 13.3 potential APG).
For Atlanta (110.4 O-Rating, 5th among the seven still-standings), the team assist tallies would be higher, the turnover margins greater, the beginnings to games more competitive and the conclusions less so, if Clint Capela would catch and finish around the rim with purpose and greater frequency. Nobody’s perfect, and Capela’s team-high 57.6 2FG% (66.7% in the first round vs. NYK) would be fine in a vacuum. But averaging over three missed shots per game within 4 feet of the rim are fuel for Philadelphia’s high-pressure transition scheme.
Collins attacking the rim effectively allowed the Hawks to turn the tide in Game 4’s third quarter. But for a flubbed Collins-to-Capela pass at the close of Game 4, Atlanta would have tied the NBA Playoffs record, as per StatMuse, for fewest team turnovers (3 TOs by 7 teams, most recently the 2018 Cavs). Atlanta can’t rely on such near-perfection in a road contest that will feel, to Sixer fans at least, like an elimination game when they’re on the losing end of the score. So decisive passing, movement to get open, proper paint finishes and getting back on defense swiftly will be key for the Hawks’ frontline.
Aside from Mike Budenholzer’s die-by-the-3 Bucks (31.0 team 3FG%, incl. whatever that is that Gioshis Antetokounmpo's doing), every playoff team shooting worse than Atlanta’s 35.5 3FG% is currently watching the postseason from either home or Cancun. Bogdan Bogdanovic (8-for-24 3FGs in past 3 games, 5-for-12 in Game 1), Kevin Huerter (6-for-11 3FGs in Games 1 and 2, 3-for-10 since) and Hawk shooters need to do a better job of connecting on threes, punishing Sixer defenders scrambling to recover after hounding Young.
That way, Capela (12.7 RPG, 3rd in Playoffs) can focus less on offensive rebounding for Atlanta (26.4 O-Reb%, highest of NBA teams in this round) to create extra chances, and more on sealing Philly (25.5% of FGAs under 3 feet, highest among active teams) off the rim, and applying the defensive clamps to Embiid (questionable with the meniscus tear, but we know the deal by now).
McMillan did come to his senses in Game 4, first by getting Solomon “Shiv” Hill out of the starting lineup, then in the third quarter, when he enveloped a withering Embiid with the jumbo-lump frontcourt lineup of Gallo, John Collins and Capela. The Hawks going big while properly closing out on Philadelphia’s perimeter threats confounded Joel (0-for-12 second-half FGs) and eventually had the Sixers visibly out of sync in the clutch, as Atlanta walked down an 18-point third-quarter deficit.
It begs the question as to whether Coach Mac will want to stick with this frontcourt lineup at the outset of all halves, not just the second one. Also, whether Doc Rivers, and his coaching bench stocked with McMillan’s former Pacer assistants, can drum up a responsive gameplan predicated on an at least half-effective Embiid in the middle.
With one assist in 35 limited minutes this series, backup center Dwight Howard is far removed from the Magic years of drawing a deserving number of extra bodies around the rim and kicking the ball out. With limited skilled-size advantages to exploit after Embiid and Howard, the Sixers would have to resort to more small-ball featuring Tobias Harris at the pivot and, perhaps, lightly-used ex-Hawks Anthony Tolliver and Mike Scott. While such lineups could be smaller, they wouldn’t be any more spry against Atlanta lineups.
The Sixers and the skeptical media gave the Hawks every bit of bait to fold the tent, accept the “Good season!” pat on the head, and saunter off boldly into the offseason. The Hawks and their Believe Atlanta fans wouldn’t bite. As playoff-battle-tested as the 76ers’ core starters are, Simmons and Embiid have as many Conference Semifinal series wins as Young (probable, sore shoulder) and Collins do. Now, the pairs share an equal number of head-to-head wins, and the series won’t reach its conclusion without Atlanta fans having one final say.
Atlanta feels almost as close to Finals Szn as they’ve been in the entire NBA history of this town. This, despite the imperfections, despite the injury setbacks, despite the disadvantages, despite the missed opportunities, despite the inexperience, despite the flaws. Dada could not have painted a prettier, nor more improbable, playoff picture for these Hawks. You can’t spell, “Surrealist” without A-T-L!
Thank You, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks!
“Where It Started…”
The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching!
Okay, fine. Maybe not the entire planet spins on the NBA’s axis. But this league, more than ever, is a Global game. Observe, just from this season, its Serbian MVP, taking honors previously bestowed upon a Greek, and its Cameroonian runner-up. Behold, its French DPOY, its Filipino Sixth Man of the Year, and their respective Australian runners-up.
American players can These Colors Don’t Run to their hearts’ content. But in this day and age, when the pressure’s on and you find yourself under siege, it is good to know you’ve got a Bogdanovic in the corner with you, on your side.
It’s not just people from the Delaware Valley and North Georgia with a keen interest in the outcome of the Philadelphia 76ers – Atlanta Hawks playoff series, Game 4 of which continues this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame analysis on Bally Sports Southeast). Travel across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Adriatic, and you’ll find folks in fancy suits sweating bullets.
As it pertained to hoops, “The Global Game” used to refer to the Games of the Whatevereth Olympiad, a quadrennial affair that was becoming quite the Soviet bloc party until USA Basketball firmly put their foot down shortly after the demise of the Berlin Wall. Tokyo was back on the block to host in the summer of 2020, before a global pandemic decided to play games with these Games.
As of this writing, there is still not 100 percent certainty that the Olympics, delayed from last summer to kick off in late July, will go on as planned. Organizers are hoping to implement something as successful as the 2020 NBA Bubble, writ large, with stringent protocols designed to keeps athletes of all sports safe.
But what can no longer wait are the myriad Olympic Qualifying Tournaments. Teams like Ben Simmons’ Australia, and LP and Derrick White’s United States ((cough)), have already locked down bids via 2019’s FIBA World Cup. After including Olympic host Japan, that leaves four spots open for each winner of FIBA’s six-team “OQTs.”
The qualifying tourneys kick off in just over two weeks from today. Depending on which of the Sixers or Hawks come away with the short end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals stick, one of those fancy-dressed folks is going to reach out and touch someone, with the quickness, upon the sound of the NBA playoff round’s final buzzer.
Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, and his agent, is most certainly on speed-dial. His native city, Belgrade, hosts the Serbian national team and five others in their OQT. The top scorer in 2019’s FIBA World Cup, Bogi likely has a vested interest in helping 2016’s Rio silver medalists wage a return to the medal stand in Japan. That is, if both he and Nikola Jokic are, uh, available. As of today, one certainly is.
If he “makes it,” Bogi may find a partner, and an OQT adversary, in his traveling party. Group A in Serbia’s OQT has Jordan Clarkson’s Philippines and Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns’ Dominican Republic. The other side of the bracket, Group B includes the Italian national team, where Danilo Gallinari could be eager to make amends.
In an obvious case of, “quando mantenerlo reale va storto,” Gallo hauled off on the face of a Dutch player during a kerfuffle at the free throw line, amid a meaningless exhibition match, and cracked his own thumb. Losing Danilo short-circuited Italy’s best chance at challenging Bogi’s Team Serbia in the Eurobasket 2017 quarterfinals. The Serbians made it all the way to the finals, where they fell to an undefeated Slovenian squad that has this really good player named Goran Dragic, among others.
There are some bigwigs that would love to talk Turkey with the Sixers’ Furkan Korkmaz (you’ve all met Furkan in Game 3), along with former Hawk and current Jazzman Ersan Ilyasova, about joining their national team at Canada’s OQT. Adding those veterans with 2021 likely NBA lotto-rookie Alperen Sengun, and former Hawks draft pick Shane Larkin, could make the Turkish team much more formidable as a medal finisher.
Even over in Kaunas, Lithuania, Angola’s got something to say. Paired up in Group B with heavy favorite Slovenia, Team Angola would greatly appreciate having the Hawks’ Bruno Fernando to join in the fun. After all, somebody is going to have to deal with Slovenian greats like Goran’s brother, Zoran, and, now that he’s “freed up,” the Nuggets’ Vlatko Cancar.
National team executives find themselves in the twisted position of hoping their compatriots stay healthy and perform well in NBA play, while wishing with wringed hands that their teams lose the playoff series. And quickly, s’il vous plait.
How eager Bogi (19 points but 4 TOs in Game 3) and Gallo (9-for-9 FTs but 0-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) are to pack their bags for a land far, far, away will be reflected in their performances in the remaining games of this Eastern Conference semifinal, where the 76ers have seized back the upper hand while Cameroon’s Joel Embiid is serving up a lower foot to the backsides of the Hawks’ frontline. The Indomitable Lions narrowly missed out of the running for Olympic Qualifying back in 2019, so Embiid (35.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.3 BPG) has no one to distract him carrying Philadelphia as far as he can.
Down Under, the powerful Boomers’ qualification as an Oceania representative is pretty much a routine layup, even with the continent having to lump their qualifying in with Asian nations. That’s good news for Ben Simmons and for a Sixers’ teammate, Matisse Thybulle, who could make the team even though he only spent early childhood years in Australia. With their Olympic bid in hand, should they choose to attend, they can maintain their focus on putting the screws to Atlanta’s Trae Young as best they can.
Of course, Trae (1st in NBA history with 20+ points and 7+ assists in 1st 8 games of playoff debut) might be getting that Love Tap from Team USA soon, too. Every American-born baller wants a bite of authentic Olympic gold, and all the trappings beyond Wheaties boxes that it could bring. But you’ve got star guards who are now all but certain to be playing NBA hoops well into the end of this month, at least. Then, there’s a van fleet of guards who recently received their first few weeks of legitimate, recuperative time off since maybe 2019, and are beginning to like it.
Even some guards may be too banged up from the close of their NBA seasons to be in a position to consider. Impose daily IOC protocols and limited maneuverability around some constrained Olympic Village, and there’s bound to be a number of “Thanks! But, no thanks!”, and all Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo can do is stomp and stammer about it. Then, call guys like Trae.
That assumes, naturally, if Young makes himself available for an LP Reunion Special and, before that, if his Hawks make him “available” by concluding this series over the next several days. Improving the likelihood of “availability” in the near term would entail Nate McMillan failing, once more, to adjust the starting unit (Solomon “el Cuchillo” springs to mind) or rotations to address the dexterity advantages brought forth by Philadelphia’s Embiid (12-for-16 FTs in Game 3; 8 assists, 1 TO) and Tobias Harris (22 points on a team-high 16 FGAs in Game 3; 5 assists, 1 TO).
The Hawks’ defense found themselves victims of death by 1,000 Sixer cuts to the basket on Friday, particularly in the third quarter as the visitors pulled away for the 127-111 win. Addressing this extends beyond simply staying in front of assignments, not getting cowed by the allure of aiding Clint Capela and John Collins (two blocks each in past 3 games) with double-teams outside the paint. (Capela's Team Swiss didn't even bother to try qualifying this go-round. Neutral bunch, those guys).
Communication to disrupt inbound passes is key, particularly by Hawk players guarding the ballhandlers, so players like Bogdanovic (5.2 deflections per game in NYK series; 3.3 versus PHI) and Young (team-high 1.7 SPG) can thrive as roving defenders. Atlanta won the turnover-production edge in their one victory thus far (19-17 in Game 1; 9-18 in Game 2, 11-even in Game 3), and they’ll need that to be the case again going forward if they are to prevail in meetings going forward.
Hawk guards on the floor cannot afford to stray from Seth Curry (60.0 3FG% this series), but they’ll have to know which player is assigned to stay on Seth’s hip and which can afford to help the forwards disrupt Philadelphia’s drive and cut lanes. Kevin Huerter struggled to make an impact over 23 minutes in Game 3, but he can get the Hawks rolling again if he can force stops and give the Sixers a taste of their own transition medicine.
Unlike Gallinari, Lou Williams, Tony Snell, Huerter and many of the Hawks’ reserves won’t be going far, not on someone else’ dime, if the successful-on-balance season concludes this week. They might as well go all-in on behalf of a raucous State Farm Arena crowd, exploiting matchups, making open shots when attention is drawn on the starters, and giving the Hawks a decisive bench scoring edge. If all goes well tonight, Atlanta will be rewarded with a third home playoff game in this series. As for the Italian Basketball Federation? Well, you folks will just have to sit and wait.
For many nations, the chance to earnestly Go For The Silver hangs in the balance. But that "sense of urgency" should not be anybody in The ATL’s problem. I’m sorry, but, frankly? “1-2-3, Belgrade!”, has a terrible ring to it.
Let’s Go Hawks!
Planking. The Choice of an Old Generation.
Down by a point midway through the third quarter in Atlanta, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player found himself confounded by the Hawks’ defensive positioning. For Golden State’s Stephen Curry, this was in a good way.
The ball made its way to him on the left corner, right near Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard, the tent-poles for the regurgitating Atlanta Basketball Club under former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s watch. Standing around fussing about his careless turnover while trying to get the ball up the court, Howard got into a see-wut-happened-wuz squabble with Dennis, about how the play should have been run, not far from their own basket.
Kent Bazemore was guarding the inbounder, but soon found himself scrambling in vain as Schröder, bickering with Howard but not minding Curry, left him alone in the far corner for one of the most open three-point shots of Steph’s famed career.
Splash. Oh, Brother. Los Warriors take the lead. Time out, Los Hawks.
“And I heard a big cheer,” said an unfamilar color analyst for the visiting Warriors, “from… you would think, a partisan crowd.” Ya think?
Steph is giggling uncontrollably, drawing hand slaps with coaches and teammates as he skips to the sideline for a quick Shasta break. Coach Bud is beside himself, too. But in his case, there is no joy in Hawkville.
“I don’t understand Coach’s decision,” groused Schröder after that pivotal game, a 119-111 loss that still had the Hawks, losers of three straight, with a respectable 34-29 record. Benching Dennis, Bud had elected to roll with Junior Hardaway and Malcom Delaney the rest of the way. “Maybe I’m too competitive, I don’t know.” Indeed, the Hawks’ marquee point guard did not know. This, on the heels of a missed game and suspension after the All-Star Break due to a visa snafu, didn’t help matters.
Dwight wouldn’t play much longer in that game after the defensive flub, either. Ersan Ilyasova consumed the lion’s share of what would have been Howard’s residual floor time, as Zaza Pachulia’s Dubs sat him and went small-ball. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the outcome of the game that was crucial for the evolution of the Hawks franchise, but that one, egregiously neglectful play.
We will never know the precise moment, maybe in the ensuing spring of 2017, when Budenholzer marched over to incoming GM Travis Schlenk’s office and said, “Look, small-b bud, please, I’m trying to get the Dellavedova out of here!” But it couldn’t have been terribly long after.
Up to a certain point, Schlenk was assuring the public upon his arrival that, no, the Hawks were disinterested in conducting a full-on rebuild, that somehow it was possible to fine-tune using the remnants of a core that, just two years before, held the top record in the NBA Leastern Conference. And Dennis, and Baze, and Dwight. “Being Competitive, and increasing our Flexibility, that’s still where we are,” Schlenk would emphasize. But then, Schlenk looked closely at what he had to work with on the floor, and what passed for veteran leadership.
He figured he maybe had more hangtime with Schröder. But in the ensuing season, Atlanta eroded to a 24-58 mark with Bud angling for an exit hatch and a soft landing. As Dennis was adding hookah-bar rap sheets and noise ordinances to his resume, shooting sub-30 percent on threes all the while, Travis understood the dream of grooming a responsible All-Star-caliber point guard out of this guy, a first-rounder from the prior regime, had run its course. Further, that tethering the point guard’s “maturation” to him any further ran the risk of managerial malpractice.
Still, the decision on Dennis would be over a year away. As he unpacked his boxes in his new, spatial Marietta Street corner office, Travis already understood… he had no time to waste with Dwight.
Atlanta’s Own (the other one) thought he had finally aligned his NBA home with his old home. Mimicking Bazemore’s tears at their Summer 2016 Free Agency press conference (someone, PLEASE, make a 30 For 30 about Summer 2016, and hurry), Dwight was self-assured that the Hawks would be his Final Destination. Moved all his snakes over here from Houston into another palatial mansion, and everything. Much like Final Destination the movie, his tenure began and ended disastrously alongside Schröder and Baze, the Curry wide-open three-pointer serving as the piano slipping perilously from above. Atlanta, Watch Yer Head!
In June 2017, Schlenk made the Dwight trade to Charlotte his first official maneuver as GM, making the final two years of what was to be a three-year, $71 million deal the Hornets’ problem to wrestle with. In turn, Atlanta got a test-drive of Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee’s contracts, a nice Summer League run with Alpha Kaba, and a cup of tea with Tyler Dorsey as Schlenk traded down in the second-round with Charlotte (maybe coulda had Thomas Bryant instead of Dorsey, but that’s pure Draft Snobbery on my part. The good pick came with Johnny Bap in the first round).
Howard would get the ring he long sought by returning to Los Angeles and clinging to LeBron and AD in the 2020 Bubble, although not before getting passed around from Atlanta, to Charlotte, to Washington, getting waived by Brooklyn and Memphis along the way. Now 100.1% assured of a Hall of Fame induction, Dwight gets to be a pseudo-Thanos of sorts, collecting gems on his fingers by coming off the bench behind all-world talents like Joel Embiid.
He’d love nothing more than to have a role in making the once low-key Hawks his personal Loki, especially as this series has ventured into Dwight’s hometown (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) for what the Hawks (13 straight home wins; 21-2 at State Farm Arena since February 13) hope will be another successful two-game homestand. But as the crew collected by Schlenk following Dwight’s 2017 departure from ATL comprehends, Clint Capela doesn’t need to fare better than Captain America, versus Joel (39.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG in 1st two games of series) and Dwight, for the Hawks to come out on top in Game 3.
Travis was in Golden State’s War Room in 2009 when handlers for Curry pleaded with Monta Ellis’ club to let the Davidson star slip down to the Knicks, who were holding the next pick. Schlenk and the Warriors graciously denied the request, and that longtime, downtrodden franchise has been laughing its way to the bank ever since. (“Welcome to New York, Jordan Hill!”)
He knows the value of homegrown point-god talent, done right, mentored right, developed right. As Schröder, unshackled from the tutelage of Westbrook and CP3, resorts to old bad habits and drawing the ire of Earvin in L.A., Schlenk is recouping the benefits of moving on, on the fly, as Trae Young grows out from his Sorcerer’s Apprentice cocoon to reveal something truly magical.
The Sixers in 2018 were pleased as punch with the burgeoning promise of 2016’s first-overall pick, Ben Simmons (hey there, “Gameboy.” We ain’t forgot about you; 4 points, 7 assists, 2 steals over 34.5 minutes in Game 2). So much so, that they had no interest in trading up with their lottery pick like Dallas would. We have The Prototypical Point God of The Future already, Philly said, thank you very much. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-11!
Instead, they took hometown product Mikal Bridges, had his mom who WORKED FOR THEM singing their praises on television, only to swiftly trade down with Phoenix and acquire Zhaire Smith instead. They got Miami’s first-rounder this year, but even that didn’t last long, coughed up in the deal that brought Tobias Harris and our old friend Mike Scott over from LA. Bridges, riding a rookie deal on this Sixers team, would look pretty darn good right now. Zhaire, at right about this moment, might be at a Memphis-area Whataburger. As a customer, that is to say.
The prior Sixers’ regime’s error became Daryl Morey’s gain, as the Rockets GM escaped H-Town just in time to take over in 2020. The inherited successes are to Morey’s gain as well. Harris (21.0 PPG, 59.4 FG% this series) would be a strong contender for Playoffs MVP, although, please, nobody advise Embiid until this series ends. Joel and Ben were already under maximum-extended contracts. Also locked down were developmental rotation guards Matisse Thybulle, a dogged defender, and Shake Milton (13.0 PPG and 35.0 3FG% in regular-season), whose Pop-A-Shot performance late in Game 2’s 118-102 home win for the Sixers should not have been such a surprise.
Morey’s grandest offseason stroke wasn’t signing Dwight to a one-year rental, or ditching Al Horford and a protected future pick for the expiring deal of Danny Green (8 assists, 0 turnovers in Game 2). It was the heist of marksman Seth Curry (5-for-6 3FGs in Game 2) from Dallas.
Having Curry and last season’s 3FG% leader, George Hill (54.5 Playoff 3FG%), plus Embiid and Harris sharing the floor has alleviated Simmons (DPOY runner-up) from the pressure to expand his floor game to include a perimeter threat, although there’s nothing keeping Ben from avoiding Dwight-level free throw accuracy (3-for-15 FTs in series). His teammates coming through early and often to withstand Atlanta’s runs in Game 2 granted Ben a reprieve from an onslaught of media and fan scrutiny.
“The Simmons narrative is tired, to be sure. But it’s not without merit,” wrote Brad Botkin of CBS Sports yesterday. “A team that is aiming to win a championship with a lead ball-handler who can’t, or won’t, shoot the ball is an obstacle in perpetuity.” Botkin notes that his defensive effort on Trae (“only” 21 points and 11 assists in Game 2; 5-for-18 3FGs in series) works as an excuse for his shortcomings only so long as his teammates are able to compensate.
In the march toward postseason prominence, Young would love to have waged this campaign with the young complements of Cam Reddish and now De’Andre Hunter all season long. In the absences of those Philly-raised products, the Hawks have turned to more seasoned veterans to help sustain their competitive edge. Try as he might, Solomon “Mack” Hill has proven inadequate with the starting lineup at the starts of halves, likely leading Hawks coach Nate McMillan to turn to one of Danilo Gallinari or Tony Snell.
Filling in as a starter for the injured Reddish in late February, Snell’s efficiency was key to igniting the turnaround of Atlanta’s season, a wing role lessened by the full recovery of Bogdan Bogdanovic. As per basketball-reference, the Hawks’ most utilized 5-Man regular-season lineup of Young/Kevin Huerter/Reddish/John Collins/Capela was a net-minus 6.0 points per 100 possessions (195 minutes). The second-most, substituting Tony for Cam, finished the season with a net-plus 11.6 points per-100 (184 minutes).
Gallinari was an offensive conundrum for the Sixers in Game 2, and nearly had Embiid on the precipice of a premature exit. Uncoupling Gallo’s minutes with fellow sixth-man Lou Williams’ could lead to better-balanced rotations. Limiting turnover production is vital to McMillan, and one could do worse than upping the offensive roles for Gallo (team-low 7.2 regular-season TO%, as per bball-ref) or Snell (team-low regular-season 0.8 TOs per 36 minutes).
McMillan will likely choose a starting replacement for Hill based on how effective they’ll be in helping with Embiid and Harris in the halfcourt and keeping Collins and Capela (11 combined PFs in Game 2) from soaking up fouls, how capable they are in thwarting Philly’s transition offense, and how helpful they can be in springing Young free to create offense for the Hawks.
“I didn’t think we did a good job of setting screens in that game,” Nate Mac said while reflecting on things to improve upon from Game 2. Nate game-planning for these Sixers, though, is nothing compared to Bud making chicken salad out of Dwight, Dennis and Baze against the league’s top-flight, star-studded teams.
Ensuring a capacity crowd in Atlanta a few years ago was dependent on drawing opposing NBA fans. But this year’s edition has shown and proven enough over the past several months to get local sports fans to Believe Atlanta, and they’re showing it with their presence and their pocketbooks. Trae and his team’s infectious play have drawn more fans to represent for The ATL than the jolly giant with the cheesy grin ever could during the abbreviated stay in his hometown.
Two or three more Hawks victories here at State Farm Arena would surely bring many more new tag-alongs, although room for the bandwagons may soon have to spill beyond the arena to Centennial Olympic Park. Here’s hoping for a decidedly partisan crowd, today and Monday, rooting for a team that has evolved in just over four years to one eliciting big cheers, instead of audible groans.
Let’s Go Hawks!