Friday, December 5, 2008

The Post is Prologue: Knicks @ Hawks

Knicks (8-10)
Atlanta Hawks (11-6)
Philips Arena
7:30 p.m.

The Knicks are heading down to Atlanta tonight for a matchup with the Hawks. Both teams were 6-3 on Nov. 15 but their fortunes have differed since. The Knicks traded away their top two scorers while the Hawks (who cooled a bit following a 6-0 start) have proven themselves to have more in common with the team that earned the Association's respect by taking the Celtics to seven games in the opening round of last year's playoffs than with the team that finished the 2007-2008 regular season with a 37-45 record. With Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford the Hawks have a solid nucleus of young talent and have emerged a butterfly from the REBUILDING cocoon. The Knicks, however, are just entering the chrysalis stage. This life cycle mismatch is one of the many reasons that Atlanta is favored by 10.5 points tonight.

As (is now) per usual, I've been trading emails today with a blogger who covers the Knicks' opponent. Below you'll find a back-and-forth with noted Hawks blog Peachtree Hoops. And if you head over to their shop, you'll find my answer to one of their Knicks-related questions.

WWOD?: After the Hawks blistering 6-0 start they seem to have leveled off a bit. Where do you think they fit in the Eastern Conference right now? Are they legit regular season contenders or a feisty spoiler aiming just to make the playoffs and surprise someone?
Peachtree Hoops: If they can remain healthy from here on out, I think the Hawks can contend for the fourth seed. As long as the avoid a first-round matchup with either Boston or Cleveland, they should have a reasonable hope of winning their first-round series.

WWOD?: As a Knicks fan who came of age as hoops watcher during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I'm accustomed to hanging my hat on some dramatic postseason series which ended in defeat. With that in mind, how much did that seven-game loss to the Celtics mean to this team and to Hawks fans?
PTH: Reclaiming the long-lost home court advantage for those three games against the Celtics which were played in Atlanta was an eye-opener. Unfortunately that hasn't carried over to this regular season in terms of attendance or noise but I think that will change for the better if the team continues to play well.

WWOD?: Speaking of Hawks fans, is the city behind this team yet? Do they believe? Is everyone too distracted by Matt Ryan? Did the team's sudden relevance in the playoffs almost happen too quickly, considering the team was 3-5 in April before the playoffs began, for enthusiasm to build organically?
PTH: There's definitely more interest and enthusiasm about the Hawks. I think there's some residual distrust from the rebuilding process taking so long but I believe people want the Hawks to be successful and will warm to them as the proof that this is a good basketball team accumulates.
It's interesting that last season, the more serious, long-suffering Hawks fans were relatively non-plussed with what was perceived as a poorly coached, underachieving team making the playoffs while the more casual fans were pleasantly surprised. This season, I think the casual fans haven't yet recognized (and this may be where Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Mike Smith come in) how improved this year's team is compared to last year's but the hard-core fans are enjoying the consistent competence to a significant degree.

WWOD?: Between Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith is this as good a nucleus as you've seen since Steve Smith, Mt. Mutumbo and Mookie? Or, could it be better?
PTH: I think they're similar. Johnson/Horford/Smith is a good enough nucleus around which to build a consistent playoff team, but unless they seriously upgrade the bench or acquire a true superstar the Hawks are unlikely to contend for an NBA championship.

WWOD?: And, speaking of that Smith/Mutumbo team, from afar it never felt like Atlanta took to them the way they embraced the Dominique-era clubs. I have memories of a lot of empty seats showing up on television when the Knicks and Hawks met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1999. Is that true?
PTH: I think it's fair to say that a generation of Hawks fans will never take to any player as they took to Dominique. That being said, there were no empty seats for the playoff games last season and very few of those seats were filled by Boston fans.

WWOD?: Mike Woodson's job was saved (right?) by the team's brief playoff run last year. Good or bad thing for the long haul?
PTH: I thought it was a disastrous decision at the time. I'm still not very impressed with him but I credit him for doing a fine job so far this season.

WWOD?: The Hawks have played 6 games where neither team broke 100 points whereas the Knicks have played just 2. What is the ideal pace for the Hawks club? Is this team better playing up-tempo or letting Bibby run the half-court?
PTH: I'm not sure there's an ideal pace for this club. It'd be wonderful to watch Smith and Horford (and to a lesser extent Marvin Williams) in an up-tempo attack but that would not be the best context for Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, or Acie Law. Plus Flip Murray would really miss being able to dribble out most of the shot clock before missing a shot. Overall, a below-average pace that allows them to focus on defense, three-point shooting, and offensive rebounding is the best way for this team to play, and, for the most part, that's what they've done.

WWOD?: As someone who doesn't get to see the Hawks play too often, which player(s) should I keep my eye on? Who is under-the-radar guy on this club?
PTH: Maurice Evans has had an excellent year as a role player off the bench. There isn't really an under-the-radar guy to watch. You know the good players and it's a fair question whether the guy's at the back end of the rotation/end of the bench should even be in the league. The Hawks are better but they're still not deep at all.

WWOD?: What's happening with Acie Law? He was lights out at Texas A&M and one of the more fun guys to watch his senior year. Has he just not been needed or has he not progressed as much as you would have hoped?
PTH: Mike Woodson doesn't let him play point guard much and Law has no off-the-ball skills. Now, Law hasn't been especially effective in the brief stretches he's played at the point, but those opportunities have been so irregular that it's difficult to write him off. I think he'd be an effective offensive player running the pick-and-roll but I've been wrong about players before. I'd much rather figure out if Acie Law can be at least a backup point guard in the NBA than watch Flip Murray further prove that he can not.

WWOD?: In the national media there is incessant chatter about the Knicks options in 2010 but I see that the Hawks have just four players (Horford, Law, Smith and Maurice Evans) under contract past that point? Will Lebron end up in Atlanta? Or will the Hawks try to keep this current group together?
PTH: The summer of 2009 will be interesting for the Hawks. They've got a decision to make on Marvin Williams and how to spend the $15 million that will come off the books when Bibby's contract expires. I'd like to see them try and get a young point guard that isn't succeeding in his current environment (say Raymond Felton or Mike Conley). I expect the Hawks will sign Joe Johnson to an extension before 2010 which will likely eliminate them from adding a significant piece that summer.

Friday's Starting Five

1. Mike Teel. Athletes and guys who aren't athletes (any more) dream about nights like Teel had last night in Piscataway, NJ. Everything went right. Everything he touched turned to touchdowns. The Rutgers QB and Oakland, NJ product threw seven touchdown passes and accumulated 447 yards passing as the Scarlet Knights of the Garden State made the Louisville defense look about as stout as Eric Idle's Sir Robin. Rutgers led 49-0 at the half and held on to win 63-14. It was the sort of unadulterated thrashing that made you feel badly for the secondary of L'ville. Well, not bad enough that you wanted Teel to stop. I wish Rutgers coach Greg Schiano would have let him try for ten TDs rather than reining him during the second. The contest was the last home game for the fifth-year senior and put an exclamation point on a career (that although it had its downs) that saw Rutgers go from doormat status to legitimate football program. The credit for the turnaround will always go to backs Brian Leonard and Ray Rice and the coach but Teel had to make the throws. While he may not be drafted by an NFL team there is little doubt that he'll get a chance to play at the next level.

2. Dirk Nowitzki. After losing seven of their first nine games, the Dallas Mavericks have now won nine of their last 10, including a fairly definitive win over Phoenix last night. Oddly (or not) enough, the turnaround began with a overtime comeback win against the Knicks. The 'bockers had the Mavs down and the game seemingly won. But Dallas rallied and seemingly righted themselves in the waning moments of the fourth quarter of that game. And the resolve they showed seem to take. Since then they haven't looked back, only losing once (to the Lakers). At the center of this resurgence has been Dirk. He scored 39 last night, with 24 coming in the first half as Dallas took an 18-point edge into the break. Another relatively overlooked member of the free agent class of 2010 (although few doubt Mark Cuban would let him leave for anything less than an ownership stake in the Cubs), Nowitzki is putting together a heck of a year down in Big D and is currently the fourth-ranked fantasy basketball player according to Yahoo!, which is nice. Especially if he was the No. 1 pick in your auto-drafted public league that you were totally bummed about at first but is now unimpeachably the linchpin of your team.

3. Atlantic Coast Conference. Much maligned in football circles, the ACC finishes its regular-season schedule with ten bowl eligible teams (more than any other conference. ever.), eight teams with seven or more regular-season wins, a 15-8 record against the other BCS conferences (+ Notre Dame) and a 3-1 record against the much-ballyhooed SEC in the final week of the season, which included Georgia Tech's win @ Georgia. While it's true that empty seats will be the story of the ACC championship game between Boston College and Virginia Tech (because the game is held in Tampa, not close to either school), the conference is far, far better than its reputation would lead you to believe. And, when it comes to basketball - where ACC quality is not questioned - the conference again won its annual challenge against Big Ten teams. It was the tenth time in ten tries that the ACC won the in-season series. I don't know if it can still really be called the ACC/Big Ten challenge.

4. Blake Griffin. You can't stop Blake Griffin. You can only hope to elbow him in the balls hard enough that he misses the end of the game. Or, at least so says Leonard Washington of USC. Griffin's No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners held of the below-the-belt hitting Trojans last night thanks in part to Griffin's ability to absorb the blow below the belt. He scored 25 points, giving him his fourth 25+ point performance in his last five games. He's a 6-10 sophomore averaging 25 and 17 per game. One season after Michael Beasley seemed like a once-a-generation talent this kid comes along and measures up pretty darn good.

5. Al Harrington. As I wrote the other day, Harrington is the best player on the Knicks right now. Which is weird, unsettling yet sort of exciting. As best I can tell, Harrington has never been better than the third (or even fourth) best player on his teams during his career. Well, except for 2004-2005 when he was probably the best player on the 13-69 Atlanta Hawks. He was second in scoring on that team to Antoine Walker but I choose not to think that he was a lesser player than 'toine. In fact, I choose not to think about that team ever having existed. Anyway, Harrington was riding the bench in Oakland not too long ago but now he's played 36+ minutes in each of his last four games in a Knicks uniform and averaged over 24 points per during that stretch. At 6-9 his ability to shoot the three and penetrate with his dribble makes him a nightmare matchup for the centers and power forwards who have to defend him thanks to the Knicks small lineup. Those same centers and power forwards can score at will in the paint but I'll trade their 2s for Harrington's 3s since Knicks games are really just a race to 110.