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“So the plumber looked behind the toilet wall, and guess what he found?”
I’m gonna be real with y’all. When the calendar turned to 2020, Adrian Dantley, I was apprised of a pervasive, pernicious threat to North America expanding across the Pacific. A threat that looked, to me, like it would soon loom over almost all our livelihoods, making it tough to so much as spend time outdoors without needing to protect ourselves and those we hold dear.
But I also knew for certain, if we all recognized the threat, and pulled together in close to the same universal direction, we could beat back this menace before it killed and created great pains for untold numbers of people. Our triumph would be the story that sets the tone for the decade to come. Bring on The New Roaring Twenties!
We are just weeks away from turning the page on 2021, Anthony Davis. Why in blazes, I ask of thee, is anybody still dealing with Murder Hornets?
Man alive, was I ready for battle. If you went to The Sto’ and found an aisle was thoroughly depleted of Raid and Hotshot, blame me. I had my swatters and zappers and foggers and fly strips and everythang. You are NOT gonna be the reason I hesitate to head out and sit beside thousands of fans cheering on my Atlanta Hawks, you pesky Murder Hornet! No-sir-bee!
Our saving graces? These not-so-little buggers have been infinitely more of a terror for bees, beetles and wasps thus far, making direct impacts to human species tertiary, at best. By all accounts they’re still confined to the Pacific Northwest of North America, and even there you were more likely to be accosted by an NBA GM than some horde of venomous, stinging wingnuts. Still, most of us have learned that the thought, “It’s happening to them, over there, so I will be safe, over here,” doesn’t always, well, fly.
State Farm Arena was fumigated of far less lethal Hornets back on November 20, our Atlanta Hawks having dispatched the buzzy visitors from Charlotte, North Cack-a-Lack. A couple weekends later, though, they have returned to The Farm (6 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL), rested and recalibrated following a three-day layoff. Is this incoming variant of Hornet something of concern? And what have they been up to since they were last run out of town?
These Hornets are still a freewheeling bunch, zipping about at a pace that ranks second only to juggernaut Houston. With likely All-Star guard LaMelo Ball leading the charge in several major counting-stat categories, Charlotte’s still good for a couple reel-worthy highlights per night. And they still give up way too many points (111.7 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) for anyone’s liking.
Since losing 115-105 to the Hawks last month, the Hornets took three steps forward, including a win at rival Washington, then took three steps back, all on the road. They managed to score 135 points in H-Town, and every bucket was necessary to erase an 11-point deficit in the final quarter, after allowing 110 Rocket points through the first three quarters.
Charlotte fell in overtime, anyway, handing Houston their third win of the year by a 146-143 final score. They went on to fall short in Chicago and Milwaukee, allowing 133 and 127 regulation points, respectively. After falling to a 13-11 record, the Hornets are hoping to get the same Trust Fall catch Atlanta recently granted New York and Philadelphia.
One commonality the Hawks and Hornets shared, before Atlanta’s win over Charlotte off of two days’ rest, was the high strength of schedule coupled with limited intervening rest days. While opponent strengths have remained comparable, Atlanta has at least been able to get significant practice and video time in at home, amongst the healthier bodies on their roster.
Coach James Borrego’s hive has only enjoyed one two-day siesta this season, prior to the three-day break preceding tonight’s tipoff. It has been 17 days and counting since they’ve had a day off following a home game (their 7-2 home record, now, the best in the East), and tonight’s game will be their NBA-high 16th away game. They’ve only played once at home in their past seven contests, as Philly, resting since emerging victorious here on Friday, awaits the Hornets’ arrival to Spectrum Center tomorrow for a two-games-in-three-days affair.
Atlanta needed all of last week’s 72-hour regrouping time just to survive the Pacers, back on Wednesday in Indiana. It’s the Hawks’ only victory since their seven-game get-right streak concluded back on November 26. Another three-day break arrives soon. But first, coach Nate McMillan’s flock has to fly north for a wintry tilt in Minnesota tomorrow. No one has time to hear about the Hawks (12-11) being short-winged, perhaps least of all the Hornets.
The starting backcourt of Ball and Terry Rozier were sent home from practice yesterday after being placed under the league’s Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Backup bigs Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels were booted from the Hornets’ nest due to Pandemic Protocols, too, the former’s plans to return from a calf injury tabled for a little longer.
For most pro teams, a visitor coming to your floor abruptly absent a key player or two is soothing news. But we all know The Atlanta Axiom. The fewer talents an opponent suddenly has, the bigger trouble an Atlanta sports team finds itself.
The ATL Axiom held firm at The Farm on Friday night, when Doc Rivers’ Sixers were permitted to claw their way back into contention, and then toward a 98-96 victory, despite having to make-do without Tobias Harris as a late scratch. In deflating home losses to the Knicks and Sixers, Atlanta combined to score just 25 points in the fourth quarters, dropping their effective field goal percentage in final frames to 46.7 eFG% (a shade below Minny’s league-worst 46.6).
The Hawks often get too caught up in swinging for the fences, hunting for home run plays and shots that look good on the nightly sport segments, when executing the occasional sacrifice bunts and bloop singles will do just fine.
Subpar shot selection by Trae Young (questionable for today, sore knee), a lack of urgency getting set in transition (1.16 transition PPP allowed, 3rd-worst in NBA, although frequency of opponent possessions is thankfully 3rd-lowest), and delayed off-ball movement in halfcourt sets, bedevil McMillan’s club when they play with a lead. A furthering of these woes leaves the door open for Ish Smith, Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre, rookie James Bouknight and Gordon Hayward to waltz in and snag another reinvigorating win for the visitors at Atlanta’s expense.
As Charlotte turns to G-League callups to buttress the front line behind Hayward, Miles Bridges (career-high 35 points @ ATL last month) and P.J. Washington, the Hawks will want to depend on veteran Gorgui Dieng, certainly more heavily than they have in recent weeks (5-for-8 FGs in past three appearances, DNP’d in two of last three games).
Getting more mid-game pulp out of Danilo Gallinari (season-high 18 points vs. PHI, matching the Sixers’ whole bench production; 16 points vs. CHA last month w/ 8-for-8 FTs) and Dieng will lighten the loads for starters John Collins and Clint Capela (combined 17-for-19 2FGs vs. CHA last month). It should also grant Young, Kevin Huerter (questionable, sore quad) and any Atlanta ballhandlers a higher margin for late-game error.
Atlanta (NBA-best 12.3 team TO%) remains among the stingiest with the basketball, a telltale sign of McMillan’s influence and Young’s continued maturation. For this to factor into winning advantages, particularly on a team that doesn’t force many turnovers themselves, just comes down to the timing of the turnovers at the starts (14.3 1st-quarter TO%, tie-22nd-lowest in NBA) and ends (13.0 clutch-time TO%, 19th-lowest in NBA) of games.
The Hawks have been in a league-low 7 clutch-time situations (3-4 record; final five minutes of games w/ margins of +/- 5 points). While it's hoped they won’t need to deploy situational plays tonight, it’s more hopeful that they’ll look better prepared than they have recently.
The good news with the impending threat posed by Charlotte Hornets, or maybe Murder Hornets, is that there remains plenty of time for Atlanta to prepare, adjust, get things right and steady the path toward a bright and fun-filled future. Don’t y’all have me out here looking silly in a beekeeper fit by this time next December. Not in the year 2022, Austin Daye.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Who Wants a T-Shirt?!?”
Will the Reign of Trae-ror continue tonight? Trae Young is back home, looking to extend his 30-plus-point scoring tear to six straight tonight at State Farm Arena. More importantly, he’d love for his Atlanta Hawks to extend the NBA East’s best home record to 9-2, in front of a packed house and a national TV audience, at the expense of the Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN).
Yes, the Sixers are climbing out of a rut, one that has the team averaging 98.1 regulation PPG (42.6 team FG%, 30.3 3FG%) over their past eight matches while pushing the ball at a snail’s tempo (NBA-low 96.3 possessions per-48, as per NBA.com stats). But the dip has been quite explanatory.
Joel Embiid (40.5 3FG%, 40.8 2FG% this season) went on an eight-game health hiatus after engaging a bout with You Know What. Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe have all missed multiple games for a similar reason, while Harris, Seth Curry, and Danny Green have been working through nagging injuries.
Harris has parked himself well outside the paint at critical possessions of recent games (last 6 games: 43.2 FG/22.7 3FG/70.6 FT shooting splits; zero FTAs in last 2 games) to save up his energies, stifling his impact as Embiid’s complementary scorer. Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey has filled the bill as best he can as a passer (5.0 APG, 0.8 TOs/game over past 8 games), but he hasn’t been able to buy buckets lately (29.9 FG% in last 5 games), and his scoring his negligible if he can’t get to the free throw line.
Whatever the rationales, coach Doc Rivers is gratified that, in explaining away the 76ers’ struggles of late, he doesn’t have to put up with The B.S.
“I literally don’t talk about it,” Rivers explained to reporters, ahead of the last Sixers-Celtics game, asking about the ongoing ordeal around Ben Simmons. “I coach the team and the guys that I can see every day. I let Daryl (Morey, not Hall) and Elton (Brand, not John) deal with all of the other stuff.”
Rivers knows the voices summoning the name of his once-auspicious Aussie would ring louder, had a healthier Philly collective come out of the gates this season at 2-8, before the recent 3-9 downturn. Instead, an 8-2 start that included satisfying wins over the Bulls (twice) and the Hawks has most of the Phanbase in chill mode, and Doc living on Easy Street, at least for now.
Philadelphia would be in even better shape if they could simply get out of their own division. Wednesday’s sloppy 88-87 loss in Boston, lowlighted by a fatigued Embiid settling largely for cherry picks (3-for-17 FGs; 18 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks), dropped the Sixers to 0-5 versus Atlantic foes.
While they won’t play divisional opponents for a while, Philly’s schedule remains tough over the next couple weeks, with the Jazz, Warriors, Thunder-plundering Grizzlies, heat and Nets on the slate following this current road trip. If the Sixers (11-11) can’t snatch away a victory tonight at The Farm, they’ll head toward a double-dip in Seth’s hometown of Charlotte having won a single in-conference game, at home versus Orlando, in the space of a month.
With the Nuggets’ Austin Rivers shelved, Doc isn’t the only head coach who has a son fighting through You Know What. Jamelle’s pops Nate McMillan returns to the Hawks’ sideline tonight after having joined Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Coach Pop among active coaches in The 700 and Up Club, in absentia in Indiana.
Getting to win #750 won’t happen anytime soon, but it sure would be easier for Nate Mac if he can eventually get a fuller complement of players in his rotation, particularly at the wing. Without Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cam Reddish (with Young, the three leading Hawk scorers in Atlanta’s 122-94 loss in Philly on Oct. 30; Cam’s doubtful for tonight), the Hawks are putting a lot on Kevin Huerter’s plate.
Undoubtedly, Red Velvet has been eating (8-for-11 FGs and a timely jersey tug @ IND; 53.7 FG%, 43.6 3FG% over last 9 games) while handling tough backcourt assignments, an integral component to the Hawks’ current 8-1 run. But there will be stretches, like the second half in Indy, or games, like the last home game versus the Knicks, where Huerter’s production will dip.
Preserving Huerter’s minutes will allow him to look more like the Game 7 hero that propelled Atlanta over Philly into the Eastern Conference Finals. It will be essential, then, for McMillan to turn more frequently to Delon Wright to help fill the gap.
Amid Wednesday’s 114-111 win over the Pacers, Wright’s 11 points (4-for-6 FGs) under interim coach Chris Jent were a season-high, and he is a surer defensive option than Lou Williams off the bench. Mixing in Wright to play alongside Young, and Huerter at turns, should only enhance the Hawks’ two-way backcourt prowess until either of Reddish or Bogdanovic returns at full health.
With the aid of Green and Thybulle, the Sixers will throw all kinds of janky defenses at Young, designed to keep him from shooting and coaxing him into giving up the ball. Trae has been relinquishing the rock, too, during his latest scoring streak, just not as frequently to his opponents as they might like (8.8 APG, 3.0 TOs/game over last 5 contests; 9.1 and 5.0, respectively, in prior 8 games).
Savvier ball-handling, and better finishes on plays for roll-man Clint Capela, has made Trae (NBA-high 15.0 PPG as P&R ball-handler) an incrementally more potent offensive threat than even the version that gave Simmons and company fits at playoff time.
The Sixers do tout the league’s best roll-man defense (NBA-best 0.86 opponent points per possession on those P&R plays), making it tough on John Collins (1.56 points per possession, tops among 23 players with 3+ roll-man possessions per game) and Capela (combined 7-for-20 FGs w/ Collins @ PHI on Oct. 30) to thrive. But Young is well-equipped to exploit Embiid and Andre Drummond’s saggy defensive schemes. He’ll need Huerter, 2016 Sixer first-rounder and fill-in starter Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (2-for-5 3FGs for season-high 8 points @ IND), Collins and Danilo Gallinari to make good on perimeter opportunities as they arise.
The Sixers will eventually find their sea legs, but there’s no need to help them swim tonight. If the Hawks dictate the tempo, harrying Philly into bad shots while boxing out and limiting second chances, Embiid and the Sixers will find themselves in no condition to keep up for a spirited run of 48 minutes. Let’s make “Trae-ror” the order of the day!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“OWW! Friggin’ COVID Toe!”
I was this old, minus a couple months, when I discovered, for the first time, that coaches don’t get Olympic medals. It never dawned on me that in all the years I watched Dream Teams and their predecessors stand on the podiums, that the Bobby Knights and Coach Ks of the world weren’t right there among them collecting shiny laurels. In a world where participation trophies are frowned upon, coaches of top-3-finishing teams and athletes don’t even get those from The Notorious IOC.
I suppose, “Assistant Coach, Gold Medal-winning USA Basketball Team, 2020- “, ought to look nice on a LinkedIn page somewhere. But at what cost for Lloyd Pierce?
An Atlanta Hawks team that checks out of 2020-21, pointing to injuries and discombobulated lineups and such, hovering around 40 percent victory rate at 30-42 (still a considerable improvement over the prior season’s 20-47 mark), would have fans disappointed but looking forward to a season where internal growth translates into a genuine playoff push.
But Pierce, stuck between a Pop and a hard place over second-year pro Trae Young’s Olympic worthiness, elected to prioritize golden medals for NBA vets over standing in alignment with the goose that lobs golden eggs. He could have done both and, coming off the Tokyo momentum, made 2021-22 his make-or-break season as the Hawks' head coach. Alas, for Pierce, nothing gold can stay.
What LP does get, as a consolation prize, is being the man next to The Man, in the Fieldhouse of his former assistant’s employer. His Indiana Pacers, coached by Rick Carlisle in the lead chair, will meet a similarly shorthanded but rested Atlanta Hawks club (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Bally Sports Indiana) at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse. If Pierce is to catch up with his Atlanta replacement tonight, he’ll have to do so via Zoom calls.
A victory shy of 700 NBA regular-season wins for his career, McMillan has some work to do if he is to one day catch Carlisle (845), one spot ahead of him in 3rd place among active coaches. But he’ll need to turn to Chris Jent tonight in order to keep the Hawks (11-10) above .500 on this season. Nate’s son, Hawks assistant Jamelle, came down with You Know What, and out of an abundance of caution, Atlanta’s head coach will isolate until he is cleared with sufficient negative test results.
The bug is going around, even among vaxxed players and staff, and the Hawks are fortunate to this point that injuries have been the sole setbacks for deploying a steady rotation. Justin Holiday has That Thing, and the former Hawk will miss time for the Pacers (9-14) just as he was beginning to get back his starter’s minutes.
Holiday joins shot-blocker extraordinaire T.J. Warren (out since December 2020 with a foot injury, may return later this month) on the shelf, albeit at a minimum six-foot distance. The Pacers will be thrilled to have shot-blocker extraordinaire Myles Turner (re-activated after non-COVID illness) back in the stead.
Carlisle went with essentially a four-guard lineup around All-Star Domantas Sabonis on Monday, versus Karl-Anthony Towns and company in Minnesota, plugging T.J. McConnell in Turner’s slot. The late night returns were kind of like Felicia Moore’s. Towns and the T’Wolves ran off with a 20-point turnaround from the third quarter on, letting off the gas late to make their 100-98 win over Indy look respectable.
At least from inside the paint, Sabonis (25 rebounds, 10 assists, 16 points on 5-for-8 2FGs vs. MIN) did all he could to hold the fort. But, in a theme familiar to Young after his Hawks got Bing Bong’d by New York on Saturday, Sabonis got little support on the offensive end.
Aside from Holiday and dry-behind-the-ears rookie Chris Duarte, who will likely start in place of Holiday, the other Pacers combined to hit just 3-for-24 from beyond the three-point line. Resistance was futile against Minnesota, too, as Karl-Anthony went to town with 16 third-quarter points to outpace Anthony Edwards’ 11, and almost Indiana’s 19 as a team.
Jent will similarly seek to put a dent in the Hawks’ third-period woes, as displayed on Saturday when the visiting Knicks turned the momentum in their favor with a 34-24 edge. The first-half losses of Bogdan Bogdanovic (out for at least a couple weeks, sprained ankle) and Cam Reddish (out, aggravated sprained wrist) seemed to throw Atlanta off-kilter. The sustained brilliance of Young (5-for-10 3FGs vs. NYK, ATL teammates 4-for-27), the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, was insufficient by his lonesome to keep the Hawks in contention for victory on that night.
Former Pacer Solomon Hill will take a stab at filling Bogi’s minutes, as will Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. But for Kevin Huerter, and reserves Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams (combined 7-for-30 FGs vs. NYK), Atlanta can ill afford “open shots not falling”, particularly if the Hawks hope to stretch their road winning streak to three games tonight.
The lack of cohesion in third quarters comes mostly in losses for Atlanta (NBA-worst 132.9 3rd-quarter D-Rating in Ls, “ahead,” admiringly, of 3-loss Phoenix’s 130.8), particularly as the team fails to get stops in halfcourt and/or get back in transition off missed shots. But second-half meltdowns, regardless of outcomes, have become de rigueur for Indy (NBA-worst 98.8 2nd-half O-Rating, incl. NBA-low 1.16 assist/TO ratio). The Pacers often find themselves scrambling late behind Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon after coughing up early leads.
The team that comes out of the Fieldhouse tunnel for what will hopefully be the final 24 minutes of action with a gameplan and a sense of urgency will have the upper hand by evening’s end. Is there a coach capable of making adjustments in the house?
I do hope LP was able to stop by the IOC gift shop on his way out of Japan, picking up the commemorative clothing that says, “I HELPED A WATERED-DOWN TEAM USA NOT FUMBLE AWAY GOLD, SALVAGED COACH POP’S OLYMPIC LEGACY, AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT”.
Let’s Go Hawks!
This season is already one for the rafters.
Props to the pride of THE Georgia Institute of Technology! DWTS meets THWG!
Iman Shumpert got his cha-cha on the hardwood early enough, during his decade-long NBA career, that the Yellow Jacket could simply slide through the rest. Over half of Shump’s points, rebounds, and assists came in his first four pro seasons, the last of which featured his attachment with J.R. Smith to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, courtesy of a trade by his first pro team, the New York Knickerbockers.
Nearly two-thirds of his NBA starts came while suiting up for New York. Playing for the Knicks can get you places, like the express line at Sbarro’s. It might even get you the hookup with a random, enterprising R&B star. But it won’t guarantee you a shot at center stage of ABC’s hit dancing show. Not unless you make yourself a spectacle of a “star” by publicly feuding with owner Jimmy Dolan, or something like that.
Now, winning a gold ball while hooping adjacent to a LeBron, or a Kobe, or some such, that could draw some faint curiosities as to your paso doble skills.
It takes two teams to tango, and Shumpert’s former team gets to do that for the first time this season with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC). This time it’s in the State Farm Arena building where, last spring, the Knicks’ dreams of postseason glory began to quickly tap away.
Tom Thibodeau’s club came into this season like a team with its hair or fire, winners of five of their first six games. That included victories over division rivals Philly and Boston, and the withstanding of a late charge by the Bulls to prevail in Chicago. Since then, the Knicks (10-9) have played in November like a team with its hair like Coach Thibs’.
It's a back-to-back for both clubs, each having arrived in The A with somewhat differing trajectories. As “Clint the Clinic” Capela (season-highs of 23-and-17 plus 3 highlight-reel blocks @ MEM on Friday) was helping Atlanta (11-9) make quick grits of the grisly grinders in Memphis, last night, the Knicks were preparing to hop on a flight south, after getting scorched at home by the Suns.
The Knicks have gotten up for big-name opponents, tripping up a Middleton-less Bucks team in Milwaukee near the beginning of the month, then outlasting a LeBron-less Lakers team at MSG this past Tuesday. But unlike the Hawks of late, New York hasn’t been able to string victories together. And then there were disheartening defeats at the hands of the Cavs, Pacers and Magic (twice).
Despite the ostensible upgrade at the point guard position with Kemba Walker, ball movement has stagnated this month (1.41 assist/TO ratio, tie-28th in NBA). Despite the return of center Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks are struggling to win rebounding battles (71.4 D-Reb%, 24th in NBA). Despite the introduction of wing scorer Evan Fournier to pair with R.J. Barrett, the effectiveness with shot-making has waned (53.4 November TS%, 25th in NBA, down from 2nd in October w/ 58.2 TS%).
Through it all, last season’s Most Improved Player award winner, Julius Randle (19.8 PPG, 42.0 FG%; 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG), has continued since the Hawks’ playoff series with the personification of the acronym WYSIWYG. With Randle going 3-for-8 on shots last night for 9 points (6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 TOs) in 31 minutes before he and the starters were granted an early reprieve, no one around Manhattan harbors any grudges that Trae Young and the Atlanta interlopers disrupted a path to the 2021 Finals.
New York (33.2 pullup 2FG%, 3rd-worst in NBA) is settling frequently for isolation jumpers well outside of the paint, and Atlanta defenders will need to be mindful of closing out above the break, where the Knicks’ 37.2 3FG% matches Atlanta for 2nd-best in the league. The Hawks should be able to box out and pull away with superior halfcourt offensive designs, especially with the adroitness with which Young (27.7 PPG, 9.0 APG. 44.2 3FG%, 89.2 FT% during 7-game win streak) is reading and reacting to defensive pressure.
The Knicks return home from Atlanta to visit Brooklyn in a few days, and then Chicago comes to town. Accordingly, they only hope the start of an eye-opening winning streak, and not the extension of a slide down the standings, can be as easy as A-B-C. In seasons past, no matter their situation, they were ensured of playing here before a Knick-friendly crowd, using the word “friendly” loosely. Those days are past, and those obnoxious fans will continue to fall back in the rearview mirror as fans of high-quality basketball show up to The Farm proudly rocking red and yellow.
Alright, New York and all your crazy fans! Get to steppin’.
Let’s Go Hawks!