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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!
The OFFICIAL Meme of Winning Atlanta Sports Teams!
Zaza Pachulia didn’t quite get there with us. And it’s not what he intended when the words fell from his mouth in front of a roaring crowd. But near the end of Atlanta’s first post-millennial journey into the NBA postseason, Zaza’s words proved prescient.
"Nothing Easy! Nothing Easy!"
Our Atlanta Hawks overcame a decades-long hex to finally reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. Alas, no, we were not allowed to just chill, kick back, and watch the clock come down before celebrating a monumental moment in franchise history.
The Hawks coughed up a ten-point edge with nine minutes to go, leading to a nail-biting final five minutes of Game 6 in D.C. At the final buzzer’s sound, Washington was going bananas, Paula Pierce was Paula Piercing, and Atlanta was meandering aimlessly around like somebody stole their baby pet hippo.
After further nail-biting review, though… HAWKS WIN! Don’t you feel ECSTATIC, Hawks fans? Yay. Plop, Plop! Fizz, Fizz!
“Hawks Win, but D@MN!”, is the default banner-headline emotion after many major victories. And it’s not just them in this crazy sports metropolis.
The Bravos’ last trip to the World Series? Playing at home, the baseball club blew a 5-0 first-inning, and a 7-3 lead in the top of the 7th, then needed a Brian Hunter single to salvage a tie in the 8th. The Mets strategically loaded the bases in the 10th with one out, to pitch to a kid hitting .217 for the NLCS. Thankfully, Kenny Rogers’ 3-2 pitch was so wild, even Andruw in good conscience couldn’t let the bat leave his shoulders. “Bravos Win, but…!”
Earlier, that same year. The Falcons’ first trip to The Big Game? It wasn’t Morten Andersen’s clutch kicks, or Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson’s final drives, that was the story. It was Mister Automatic, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, failing to secure Minnesota’s destiny with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, after Atlanta seemed to have let the gains of a late rally slip away. “Falcons win, but…!”
It’s not simply our local teams blowing chances at victories that’s part and parcel of The Atlanta Story. It’s also about when they *do* win a big game, it is rarely decisive and without late, often seemingly unnecessary, drama.
Whatever deals we made with our own personal Mephistopheles to get our Hawks into this year’s NBA Playoff party, and then to be as successful as they have been at this stage, we as fans are well past the point of negotiating how games and series must end. In the space of just over three months, Nate McMillan took over a club that was underwhelming to most everyone and he has them exceeding the wildest and most irrational of expectations. If it has to come with a sprinkling of Atlanta Sports? So be it!
McMillan’s charges sprinted to a 26-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 1 at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, then withstood volleys from a prideful, top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers team in the third quarter. With Atlanta holding a 19-point lead over the Sixers with just over eight minutes remaining, Nate Mac handed the strategic coaching keys over to Dan Quinn.
Either that, or Trae Young and the Hawks are just merrily rolling the ball up the court, toying with the game clock and daring the Sixers not to force turnovers before plays can develop. Five of Atlanta’s six fourth-quarter turnovers came in the final 4.5 minutes of play, the spoils of enhanced Sixer pressure compounding a spell of missed jumpers, a blown putback layup from Clint Capela, and referees confusing whistles for lozenges.
Sixer Basketball is forcing turnovers and scoring in transition while the opposing defense is destabilized, and Philly did that to great effect as Atlanta’s 107-88 lead was whittled down to 126-124 with ten second to go.
Atlanta’s saving grace came at the Gray Mule line, as Capela’s third-quarter miss was the only one of the Hawks’ modest 21 free throw attempts that did not hit nylon. They need not tempt fate again in Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A raucous Sixers crowd will do all they can to try throwing the Hawks off their game and keeping the Sixers from falling into Clippers territory heading into games in Atlanta.
Philadelphia’s late-game barnstorming could not have come to pass without their likely MVP runner-up. Playing through his torn meniscus for 38 grueling minutes, Joel Embiid (39 points, 14-for-15 FTs, 9 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals), gave Capela his best shot. Unfortunately for Joel, he found woefully himself out of position and behind plays in the final frame (zero 4th-quarter D-Rebs or blocks) while trying to will Philly to victory on offense.
Like Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (sore knee, DNP Game 1), Embiid is again listed as questionable to play in Game 2. The Hawks will need to assess which side of the court Joel, assuming he plays, is favoring and pressure his Sixer teammates at the other end accordingly.
If Embiid is going heavy on offensive post play, get to the cup in quick-strike transition, compelling Sixer defenders to commit fouls even the refs can see. If he is camping out in rim-protection on defense, Trae and Lou Williams should use dribble-drives and kickouts to free up shooters (ATL Playoffs-high 15.8’ average shot distance; 37.3 3FG%, 5th among remaining 8 teams).
Meanwhile, Hawk frontcourt contributors should place emphasis on limiting Ben Simmons (7-for-7 FGs in Game 1, all within 4 feet of the rim; team-high 10 assists to match Young, but 5 TOs and 3-for-10 FTs) from playing catch-up with interior shots. A league-high 91.0 percent of Philadelphia’s three-point makes in the postseason are assisted, and Hawk wings and roving guards must stay active in anticipating chances for deflections and steals. The team that is more disruptive with dishes off penetration is likely to hold the upper hand in Game 2. If Atlanta can be more consistent across quarters, we can have a “Hawks Win… OK!” kind of game.
The ‘98-99 Falcons, the ’99 Bravos, and the ’15 Hawks each had major, history-making wins, but took so much skin off their own teeth in the small-p process, they had no bite left once it was time to sink them into the likes of John Elway, Derek Jeter or LeBron James in the next big rounds.
The ’21 Hawks have a bit of familiarity with letting momentum slip away in recent games, but so far have come away on the fortunate side. Atlanta allowing an early 11-point lead to evaporate in Game 1 of the conference semis was overshadowed by Trae’s closing heroics, but it gave New York and their fans confidence that they could seize momentum back in Game 2, and beyond. That didn’t happen, because Knicks, but the Sixers have far better talent and awareness to make their hopes come to fruition.
Rather than merely hoping Embiid runs out of gas, the Hawks must have the high-quality ballhandling and passing under pressure, the focus to create and make open jumpers and layups, and the will to hound Philly’s perimeter threats, such that it becomes obvious that Embiid is perilously running on E to everybody, especially coach Doc Rivers.
The pride of Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner must have been a lowkey Hawks fan in 1971, when she grabbed the mic before covering Credence Clearwater Revival and announced, “You see, we never do nothing NICE and EASY. We always do it NICE and ROUGH. So, we’re going to take the beginning of this song, and do it EASY. Then, we’re going to do the finish ROUGH.”
Like “Proud Mary,” this is the way we do, “Atlanta Sports.” The 2015 edition of the Hawks perhaps found itself a bit too shellshocked, with the way they crept into the conference finals, to be properly focused on the juggernaut that awaited them. This new version, hopefully, never lost one minute of sleep over the close of Game 1, worrying about the way that things might have been. The approach to this game must stay on what could be.
It’s Game 2, Atlanta. Big wheel? Keep on turnin’!
Thank You, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks!
1979: (5) Hawks (46-36) beat (4) Houston Rockets (47-35), 2-0
“Hubie did WHAT? Who does that?”
The Rockets were ready for takeoff. They were stacked with future Hall of Famers Calvin Murphy and Rick Barry, and had guys like an emerging Robert Reid, the recovered Rudy Tomjanovich, and Slick Watts in his final NBA season off the bench. On top of all that, they also had 23-year-old league MVP and All-Star starting center Moses Malone in the prime of his career. Big Mo tallied 49 points and 41 rebounds in two games versus the Hawks.
Yet Houston had a problem in the form of Atlanta’s John Drew. He and Fast Eddie Johnson heated things up in the second half of Game 2, each finishing with 25 points apiece as the Hawks outlasted the Rockets 100-91 to pull off the surprising sweep in the Best-of-3 series. In the preceding Game 1, Malone’s 28-and-17 were met at the Summit, by Hawks newcomer Dan Roundfield’s 23-and-18. The Rockets misfired and struggled to keep up with Atlanta’s 39-point blitz in the third-quarter. Tree Rollins swatted a shot in the closing minute to salt the game away, the Hawks prevailing 109-106.
The degree-of-difficulty for this sweep was raised at the Omni in Game 2, when Head Coach Hubie Brown got tossed in the first half after drawing two quick technicals, his second and third whistles in the series.
The playoff sweep spelled the end of Head Coach Tom Nissalke’s short but significant tenure in Houston, replaced by Del Harris. Nissalke moved on the next season to coach the Utah Jazz.
The Hawks would go on to put a scare into the top-seeded Washington Bullets in the semifinal round, falling short in seven games to the eventual Eastern Conference champs.
1996: (6) Hawks (46-36) beat (3) Indiana Pacers (52-30), 3-2
“Wait a minute… oh my Gawd! That’s Reggie Miller’s music!”
The way the script was supposed to go, Larry Brown’s 52-30 Pacers (second in the Central Division to the 72-10 juggernaut Chicago Bulls), had held on in the series long enough for Rated-R superstar Reggie Miller to return from a fractured eye socket, suffered just four games before the regular season ended. After all, this was the man whose heroics (8 points in 9 seconds, anyone?) incurred the wrath of the Madison Square Garden faithful in the prior two playoffs, raising him to folk-hero status in Indiana.
While keeping a healthy eye on Miller’s status, Steve Smith and the Hawks had plenty to contend with even as Miller struggled to get back on the court. The Dunkin’ Dutchman Rik Smits, Derrick McKey, and the Davis Boys were a formidable frontcourt. Point guard Mark Jackson was much improved. 36-year-old Ricky Pierce had been a thorn in the side of the Hawks all season long, and now started the series in Miller’s place. Heady vets like ex-Hawks Haywoode Workman and Duane Ferrell filled out a deep bench. Now with his fifth NBA team, Head Coach Larry Brown looked like he finally found a home. As the regular season wound down, Smith had raised the ire of Brown and the Pacers by hinting the Miller-less Pacers would be a preferable first-round opponent.
The Pacers had hoped they wouldn’t need Miller for this series, perhaps saving his energy up for Shaq, Penny, and the Orlando Magic in the next round. But Lenny Wilkens’ defensive-minded bunch had other plans. No one could match Smitty’s playoff-career-high 27 points in Game 1, or Grant Long’s playoff-career-high 14 rebounds. As the Hawks pounced on the Pacers in the closing quarter to win 92-80, the clamoring in Market Square Arena for their hero began.
Indiana came back on the strength of Smits’ 29 points and survived a Hawks fourth-quarter rally to survive in overtime of Game 2, 102-94, and even the series. Atlanta had no desire to come back to the Hoosier State, getting 8 steals from Mookie Blaylock and 24-and-8 from Christian Laettner to stifle the Pacers in Game 3, 90-83. But with a chance to close out the series at home, and no Miller around to save the Pacers, Atlanta flubbed Game 4 by shooting just 35 percent from the field, setting the stage for what was supposed to be a fateful Game 5.
Rocking protective goggles, Miller arrived in Game 5 and gave Indiana 29 points (and not a whole lot else). Despite their vaunted front line, Indiana could not keep Atlanta from racking-up critical second-chance points. Mookie Blaylock poured on 23 points, Sean Rooks and Matt Bullard suddenly found life off the bench. And Miller’s scripted game-winning heave fell off the mark, the All-Star chucking his goggles into the stands in frustration. Hawks win, 89-87.
The Pacers would crumble the next season (39-43), and Brown would be packing his bags for Philly, leaving the coaching job to Indiana state legend Larry Bird. After ousting the Pacers in 1996, the Hawks couldn’t do much with Shaq or Horace Grant in the next round, falling in five games despite 7 threes and 35 points (on 31 shots) from Smith to salvage Game 4. In the offseason, they upgraded the center spot by successfully wooing Dikembe Mutombo to Atlanta.
2011: (5) Hawks (44-38) beat (4) Orlando Magic (52-30), 4-2
“See you in the second round.”
After the Orlando Magic’s final regular-season loss in Chicago, Jameer Nelson embraced young league MVP Derrick Rose and offered up that forward-looking comment. Nelson’s famous last words were picked up on the ABC microphones and broadcast nationwide, drawing the ire of a Hawks team that had gone to two straight Conference Semifinals themselves.
But really, who could blame Nelson for thinking that way? Was it not just the year before that Dwight Howard and the Magic trounced the Hawks in all four games of the semis, the largest cumulative margin of victory in a Best-of-7-game series in the history of bouncing balls, on their merry way to their second-straight Conference Finals?
Now, one year later, Howard was about to win the Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season, coming off of arguably his best all-around season at the still-jolly-green age of 25. Then Head Coach Stan Van Gundy’s club went out and added Q-Rich, and J-Rich, and cult-favorite Hedo Turkoglu, and former All-Star gunner Gilbert Arenas. Yeah, maybe they’ll miss backup center Marcin Gortat a little. But surely, there was no need for the Master of Panic, or anybody else, to fret about the Hawks.
Meanwhile, those Hawks? Their new starting point guard, Kirk Hinrich, just arrived in mid-February. And who is supposed the Dwight-Stopper this time? Jason Collins? Head Coach Larry Drew, you’re kidding, right?
Apparently, no one was ready for Jamal Crawford. America’s Best Sixth Man came off the bench and lit up Orlando with 23 points in Game 1, virtually matching All-Star Joe Johnson’s 25 points and 5 assists. Howard’s 46 points and Nelson’s 27 points made up nearly all of the Magic’s offensive firepower as they lost 103-93 at Amway Arena.
The next three games were battles of attrition, with Orlando evening the series by winning 88-82, then Atlanta pulling away at Philips Arena by scores of 88-84 and 88-85, largely on the strength of Joe and Jamal. Zaza Pachulia left Jason Richardson feeling like a mini-thug in Game 3, and Jamal took the air out of the Highlight Factory with a game-winning, series-momentum-shifting three-pointer from the top of the arc over Nelson.
Orlando finally got the laugher they anticipated in Game 5, winning 101-76. But, by then the prevailing view from the Hawks had become, “Orlando, we’ll see you in Game 6, back at our house.” With a packed house at Philips pulling for a “Dwight-Out”, iconic Hawks forward Josh Smith saved the day with a clean swat of Jason Richardson’s desperation three-point shot, sending the Magic packing with an 84-81 defeat and leaving Nelson's vow unfulfilled.
Crawford and Hinrich deluged the Magic in the series with long-range shots, nailing a combined 25-of-56. Playing Jason Collins against Howard soaked up a lot of fouls that would otherwise have been charged to the more talented trio of Smith, Pachulia, and Al Horford, the All-Star forward who finished the series with a double-double average of 12 points and 10.2 rebounds. It would be Crawford’s last postseason for the Hawks, signing a free agent deal with Portland the following winter as the Hawks made room for Joe Johnson’s expanding contract.
As for the Magic, the series served as a revelation that the supporting cast around Dwight wasn’t as sound or strong as he needed in order to lug a team to an NBA title. Dwight was still a monster in the series (27 points, 15.5 rebounds per game), but carrying his team took its toll, as he amassed a whopping 33 turnovers and 3 technicals while constantly preoccupied with foul trouble.The series upset opened the door to the possibility he’d seek greener pastures elsewhere very soon. By the close of the following season, Howard and Van Gundy were on the outs, Dwight dictating at different turns the alternative places he’d like to be traded.
Three minutes into the close of the game-clinching victory, Hinrich injured his ankle. He would be out for the next series against Rose and Chicago, leaving the starting point guard duties to second-year guard Jeff Teague, who had experienced all of nine minutes of action in the Magic series. Looking forward from that point, it remained to be seen whether Teague would ever be the kind of player who could win a playoff game for the Atlanta Hawks.
“Orange and Blue” is the New “Black and Blue”.
New York Knicks jerseys aren’t new, but they are the new Beer Muscles.
I didn’t need to know my Jake Pauls from my Logan Pauls from my Cliff Pauls from my Mrs. Paul’s. But goshdarnit, Nate Robinson, back when you still had your faculties and all, what were you not thinking?
Putting on that orange and blue with the “NEW YORK” emblazoned on it makes New Yorkers think they can step to anyone and accomplish anything, even if the Knicks themselves haven’t accomplished much of anything since Watergate. Moreover, it’s not just the tried-and-true natives of New Amsterdam who get their Dutch courage from a dash of Knicks gear.
Irrationally, I opine that the athletes helming from the far-away land of Seattle are top-tier, a view I’ve held strongly since the heady heydays of Jamal “Don’t Crack” Crawford. Maybe it’s the crisp air, I dunno. Folks like Katelyn Ohashi, Apolo Ohno, and Gail Devers help give this theory some gravity.
When it comes to hoops, Pacific Northwesterners that grew up seeing and learning of grungy Sonics-era guys like Nate McMillan, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have been flowing into the NBA in waves ever since. A multi-sport athlete on the come-up from U-Dub, NateRob got the benefit of making the biggest NBA splash right from the jump, courtesy of a 2005 draft-night deal when the Suns drafted then sent him with Quentin Richardson out to the Knicks for Kurt “Mr. Happy” Thomas.
I have zero doubts that “Former Slam Dunk champion and SACRAMENTO KINGS star Nate Robinson” wouldn’t be walking in cold to anyone’s pay-per-view celebrity(?) boxing match unless he paid for a ticket. Note that I’m using “celebrity”, in the modern-day YouTube sense, as loosely as I can here. Was Salt Bae unavailable to glove up?
You’re not gonna catch Atlanta Hawks legend Spud Webb out here, decades after his dunk title, taking up bullfighting or cheese-rolling or some nonsense. Where might you catch him all those years later? Standing still, as he should, as a prop while Nate leaps over him (on, what, the 14th try of the night?) to win his own contest.
Especially for us gravity-bound shorties, it was a quaint little sporting achievement that, 15 years removed, Robinson continues to overexploit, because he can, because NEW YORK. Last time you were forced to think about the athletic exploits of Fred Jones (Indiana) or Jeremy Evans (Utah) was when? Exactly. Just this very moment and, maybe, never again.
He was a member of five NBA clubs over the course of his first 11 years in the NBA. But because of his Knicks tenure, the pride of the Emerald City is in a perpetual New York state of mind, hiring an Empire State dude to be his agent and drum up all kinds of crazy ways he can keep his name social-media-relevant. Said agent runs into wannabe pugilist and “influencer” Jake Paul (I’m just assuming it’s Jake, I don’t feel like double-checking), shoves his client into a gym for a months-long crash course in the squared circle, then propels him into a ring clad in blue-and-orange, thoroughly under-trained for even an undercard, with a whole (bored) world watching.
After the bell, let’s have some introductions, shall we? NateRob, this is Leather. Canvas, say hello to Nate. Now Billy Paul or whoever is out here takin’ ‘bout, “If he dies, he dies,” him and his bro using Nate’s snoozing body as a stepping stone to talk mess with actual UFC fighters.
Worst decision by a Puget Sound-area athletic competitor since Jason Terry, with his Celtic beer muscles, said to himself, “Ay, lemme go break up this lob here right quick.” NateRob could have chosen to rock some Seatown green before getting rocked in turn. But now, he done embarrassed his people on two American shores. It is true that a little better focus and readiness, and a lot more time in the gym, would have allowed Robinson at least a little more time on his feet. But none of this is happening if we were dealing, 15 years before, with Nate Robinson, high-flying top-scorer of some lackluster New Orleans Hornets team.
The current fellows suited up in New York Knicks gear venture into Game 5 of the Best-of-7 series with the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT) trying their darnedest not to look like an accidental tourist that stumbled into some “celebrity” exhibition bout opposite Evander Holyfield. "It’s gonna be okay, my guy, don't fret! He's not gonna bite ya."
Like schoolyard schemers who believe they’re Vince McMahon, New York sports fans in your corner will gas you up into thinking you’re some all-time great when you’re, at best, pretty good – or, “improved” -- and ready to be trotted out for anything against anybody when any sentient observer could advise that you’re not. The franchise clusters together ONE fine regular season (same as the Hawks, roughly equivalent to 47-35), their first in many years, and the dutiful New York sports media is doling out super-sized Bags of Chips while declaring their Knicks are All That.
These Knicks thought they could roll a little Spike, a little spittle, a little spokes-mayor, a little Sbarro’s out there, and Atlanta would turn tail. That’s what they thought because that’s what they’ve been taught. You’re repping New York, and that’s all that matters. Why bother putting in the necessary work?
The lower-seeded Hawks have put in the work, and that has been revealed for the balance of this first-round Eastern Conference series (as much as I hate to say these two words…) “thus far.” Not only did Atlanta have the homecourt disadvantage entering this series, but there was a rest disadvantage built into the scheduling, too.
There were seven days between regular season’s end and Game 1 before a ravenous crowd at Madison Square Garden, then two-more off days before Game 2 in the same house. Game 3, in Atlanta, came with a one-day break. So did, Game 4 with its early-afternoon start at State Farm Arena.
Now with two full days off before Game 5 back in NYC, coach Tom Thibodeau’s collective has been granted ample time not only to lick their wounds after losses, but also to gameplan and adjust to what McMillan’s Hawks are presenting out on the floors.
Historically, the Bockers are 0-12 all-time when tasked to climb out of a 3-1 series hole (NBA teams are 13-248, as of last night, when trying to survive this deficit, as per Land of Basketball), and their opponents are from a sports town that knows a little something about counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Now, here's a little story that needs to be heard.
If you ask Spike nicely, he’ll recall the time his Knicks blew a 3-1 lead to their former head coach. Game 5 in Miami went Pat Riley’s way, saving the heat’s season, but Jeff Van Gundy’s club got unglued near game’s end, when Lady Byng Citizenship Award winner P.J. Brown snapped and went Citizen Kane, rag-dolling pesky low-bridger Charlie Ward WWE-style into the photographer’s section.
John Starks gets tossed, along with Ward and Brown. Yet while Miami’s P.J. was suspended for the remainder of the series, New York’s Starks, Ward, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson also got suspended for one game.
The latter three penalties were the result of rules imposed by David Stern – if you’re not in the game, don’t leave the bench! – after a 1993 halftime dust-up featured an inactive New York guard Greg Anthony, a Las Vegas kid with Beer Muscles and dressed in horrifically garish 90’s fashion, stepping on court to cheap-shot Kevin Johnson in defense of Doc Rivers. Through their union, Knick players sought an emergency legal injunction, but a New York judge (and begrudging Knicks fan) denied their motion to stay the suspensions pending arbitration.
Per league rules requiring nine players per team, Ewing and Houston sat out with Ward for Game 6, while LJ and Starks were suspended for Game 7. With the Knicks missing key reinforcements, Miami prevailed at MSG in Game 6 and made Game 7, back in their house, a mere formality. New York had blown their last, best chance to wrestle the Shute from Chicago with The Finals on the line, because Beer Muscle Rules dictate they had no choice but to Keep It Real.
There’s a good moral to the story in there for Hawks coach McMillan to share with his young pups ahead of this Game 5. There’s little question that the team headed by Trae Young (Mount Rushmore du jour: 4th newbie in NBA Playoffs history to average 25 PPG and 10 APG in first four games) and a bloodied-yet-unbowed John Collins will be ready to roll with whatever punches, however figurative, come their way. Granted a final eight-count, will Julius Randle and his teammates come up off the mat ready to properly stick-and-move?
I keep waiting for Orange Julius to pull back the hood and reveal 2011-era Josh Smith. Every instance that Randle pokes his hands out at referees, pleading like Oliver Twist and pouting, go right ahead and chalk up another two or three points for the Hawks in your head. By default, he landed his best jabs of the series in Game 4, a 113-96 loss to a Hawks team that laid off the gas late. But in a playoff series where his inexperience and unfair expectations are getting exposed, he gets too easily punch-drunk when things aren’t going his way.
So much attention, including his own, is directed at Julius’ shooting struggles (16.3 PPG on 24.1 shots/game, FTs included). But a remodeled point-forward who averaged a team-high 6.0 APG in his award-winning season could only muster 10 assists, to go with 10 turnovers, through the first three games of this series. Even in Game 4, Randle managed to up the ante with 7 assists, but accompanied that with 5 turnovers, 5 fouls for the second-straight game (the final hack a sketchy one), and lackadaisical defense that would have gotten someone else on Thibs’ roster benched.
Much of Randle’s dime-drain stems from the lack of teammates, aside from Derrick Rose, making even open perimeter shots. Bailey, Banks and Biddle could come in and drop more gems than the trio of Barrett, Burks, and Bullock (combined 20-for-67 3FGs for the series). “I see it. I’m open,” RJ shared with The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov after Game 3. “I just got to make it.” Barrett proceeded to score 21 mostly by attacking inside, but the sophomore went 2-for-7 on jumpers outside the paint on Sunday.
Randle’s Knicks have been grounded and pounded by the Hawks’ stout man and recovering help defenders, unable to sustain their rebounding advantage (lost 48-39 in Game 4), and unable to use foul-shot discrepancies as an excuse (Playoffs-low 17.5 FTAs/game; 70 FTs attempted by ATL in four games, 74 FTs made by NYK on 21 more attempts).
While McMillan continues to preach to the Hawks about pursuing second, third, and fourth options in halfcourt possessions, the Knicks are getting mired in My-Turn, Your-Turn Land between Rose and Randle, and the other so-called “options” around the horn aren’t trying to locate each other. Playing to if not just a bit outside of his strengths, Rose (22.8 PPG, highest in a full series since his 2011 MVP season) is doing all he knows to do to help his team, but Randle (26.3 FG% on isos) isn’t creating for himself or others via post-ups.
Third in the NBA in post-up possessions during the regular season, Julius is faintly credited by NBA Stats with a single post-up possession through four games in this series. Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock (1.0 APG this series; zero Game 4 points, 4 FGAs in 34 minutes) is so focused on putting the screws to Trae and others on defense, as Thibs explained to reporters on Sunday, that he’s running on empty at the other end.
New York would love to have even Mr. 50/50/100 himself, Tony Snell, as a veteran option for spurts. Snell has been DNP’d after logging 12 minutes in the first two contests, and if he’s healthy he could be a surprise boost off the bench. In terms of scoring impact, Thibs’ mid-series decision to move Rose into his starting five was offset only slightly by substituting an injury-nagged Nerlens Noel with starter Taj Gibson. A starting Rose makes it imperative that Atlanta’s bench brigade seizes the opportunity to outshine New York’s once more.
Leading the backups to a 31-28 edge over the Knicks in Game 3, 37-28 in Game 4, Atlanta reserves Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter rebounded and made key shots and plays, such that starters Bogi Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter didn’t need to have banner days for Atlanta to keep the Knicks at bay. Add a touch of a semi-productive Lou Williams, Onyeka Okongwu and/or Snell to the mix in Game 5 and the Hawks, outscored 64-31 in bench points in Game 1 and 55-22 in Game 2 thanks to Rose, could gain a decisive final advantage on the road. Just don’t All-Bench ‘em, Coach Nate.
Division rival Washington gifted, let’s just say, this series’ eventual winner by extending their series with Philadelphia on Monday, denying the Sixers and their momentarily injured star center a definite rest advantage ahead of the Eastern Conference semis. That should only serve as further incentive for the Hawks to conclude the series with New York as soon as possible. Doing so on the road could serve as useful experience for what could lie ahead.
It’s not about, “if I can make it here, I can make it at anything, anytime, versus anyone, anywhere.” Striving to be an omni-athlete on multi-vitamins in your late 30s is fine. Sadly, Nate Robinson had to learn about the flaws of relying on New York’s Tough-Guy Transitive Property, with poor preparation and poor focus, the hard way.
Hopefully, Clint Capela and the Hawks will be able to assert the problematics of adhering to such a short-sighted mindset into the brains of the Knicks, along with the adoring fans that bothered to bring their brains with them, a bit more subtly tonight, just once more in the house that Ali-Frazier built.
“We win the game, we talk ((Dellavedova)) and we push around. So, what are you gonna do about it?” Capela (13.0 RPG, 2nd in NBA Playoffs) asserted when asked of the Hawks’ calm, cool, connected counterpunches to the Knicks’ Glass Joe, wannabe-Fat Joe bravado.
Clint has personal experience closing out Thibodeau, Gibson and Rose, plus Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler in Game 5, first-round action, when his 26 points and 15 boards helped CP3 and James Harden’s Rockets gentlemanly dispatch the Timberwolves to the hinterlands in 2017. “We can be physical, but we can win games as well. Now, we’re coming to your house to win this game, again, and send you on vacation.” I’m told the fish in the Hudson put up a good fight in the summertime.
What are the Knicks going to do? A prominent New Yorker once noted that everybody has a plan until, well, Mr. Robinson surely knows the ending to that quotable. Do these Knicks even have a plan, one perhaps involving a basketball? It may no longer matter if they do, but we’ll all find out soon enough.
When it comes to the outcome of this playoff series? It’s no longer up to you, New York, New York.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Psst! Mayor Bill! Here. Come sit by me.”
We’re back in The Traedium for Game 4 (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC)! “Tidbits in the Morning!”
We want the New York Knicks and their unctuous supporters to mutter, “Well, we’ll just see you back here in Game 6!” and “Knicks in 7!” once today’s affair concludes. Doing so will require our Atlanta Hawks to continue take care of The Seven R’s. Randle. Rose. (hold on, the time clock just messed up again. Okay, where were we? At two?) Rebounding. RJ. Reggie. Recovery. And the Refs.
One sobering Knickfan on SB Nation put it plainly after Friday’s raucous Game 3 win. Paraphrasing: in this series, one team’s star is building its entire team around him and the infectious synergy he creates. The other team’s star is trying to get up off the mat and do all he can think to do, for a club that effectively drafted his eventual replacement back in November.
Julius Randle (14.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, but 20.6 2FG% and 30.0 3FG%) is struggling to be the best R on his team, much less the best R on the floor (Hey, New York, maybe try “RAYFORD!” as a Game 5 taunt? It used to work so well for Mets fans with “LARRY!”).
I see Derrick Rose (24.3 PPG, 51.7 FG%, 4.7 APG) as more of a release valve than a player steaming up the nets in this series. His scoring efficiency would be problematic for the Hawks if he were the Knicks’ supplementary, not the primary and ultimate, threat. Somebody has to score, and he’s scoring mostly in his own conventional ways, although Atlanta doing better at honoring his three-point shot (3-for-5 3FGs in Game 3, rest of NYK 6-for-25) will help bring that efficiency down.
If he can give the Knicks quality production over the course of 25-30 minutes, not 35-39, that would be better for them in the long haul. If only to get somebody aside from Rose to stir things up inside, look for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to put his rookie Immanuel Quickley (89.1 regular-season FT%, 11th in NBA) on the ball more going forward. Momma Payton, I am so sorry.
Similarly, it would aid New York if they could get rebounding and stops from a guy over three years Rose’s senior in 15-20 minutes, not 25-30. Taj Gibson could not duplicate his Game 2 impact on Friday (six rebounds and 0 steals, down from 7 and 3, respectively; 2-for-6 FGs in 26 minutes), allowing Atlanta, less hemmed-in by foul trouble, to narrow the Knicks’ rebounding advantage from 54-41 last Wednesday to 45-42.
The Knicks still nabbed 13 O-Rebs for the third consecutive game, with all five starters plus Nerlens Noel and Obi Toppin digging in during Game 3. Atlanta properly boxing out and relying on help rebounders like De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Tony Snell, to cut down on extra-chance scoring opportunities will make New York’s uphill climbs steeper.
We never got to find out how the player Atlanta traded for, out of 2018’s #3 spot, might have fared in his postseason debut, had it come about in his second pro season. We can only hope it would not be as much of a challenge as it has been, so far, for the fellow the Knicks came away with at #3 in 2019. With one more Hawks win tonight, Canada Men’s National Team GM Rowan Barrett will hope to begin re-orienting his son, RJ (34.2 FG%, incl. 2-for-9 in Game 3), toward another team entirely next month.
A three-game comeback and another week or two of second-round action won’t give Rowan much time to convene his talented kid with Nick Nurse, Andrew Wiggins and the Canadians for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which begins in British Columbia less than a month from today. Looking at the current ongoings in Japan, though, this “problem” may take care of itself.
Some bad news from Game 3 was, the Hawks only scored a pair of fastbreak points. The good news is Atlanta still won that category on Friday, by two (2-0 Game 3, 15-6 Game 2, 9-9 Game 1). Getting shut out in that department won’t sit well with Thibs, who expects a modicum of quick-strike transition after defensive stops to throw teams off.
The Hawks will look to push the pace more frequently on a team so reliant on Rose and Gibson to run the court. The Knicks will turn to Quickley, on occasion, to hurry the ball upcourt and kick out the ball to their killer B’s (Reggie Bullock, Barrett, Alec Burks), in hopes of getting them unstuck with kickouts to the corners.
Can Elf give Bullock some hair advice? That’s all I’ve got for Reggie.
If Atlanta is so fortunate as to begin pulling away in the second half, Bullock and the Knicks have an R of their own up their sleeve – Resorting, to thuggery, either to tilt Game 4 back toward their favor and/or “send a message” that a potential closeout Game 5 in Manhattan won’t be so kind. As young and inexperienced as the Hawks are, they pulled off a masterclass in rash-alk on Friday… trash-talk, without any T’s. Whatever they’re doing to keep the Referees’ attention on the Knicks’ big mouths, keep it up!
Closing tidbit: I’m happy Mayor Keisha hasn’t been goaded into a pointless wager with Bill de Blah-Blah-Blah. Who wants to win some wet teddy bears on a bun, anyway? We’ll keep our bushels of peaches, thank you.
Let’s Go Hawks!