When the Denver Nuggets visit Phillips Arena this evening, they’ll present yet another “first” this season for the Hawks. The first real challenge at home, that is. Having thrown in their card as a legit contender for the Western crown last year, the Nuggets are assumed a contender again this season. No doubt a 5-1 start has done nothing to dissuade such a notion, despite a mild hiccup in Miami last night. Meanwhile, the Hawks would like to become part of the conversation when it comes to talking about legit contenders. Winning more on the road is the next step to winning 50 or more games, but winning games at home against tough opponents is also something the Hawks have to learn to do. Why? Because what you learn to do now is what you will repeat in the postseason. If the Hawks want to meet with better success in the postseason, this is where it starts. A win against the Nuggets would be the first step on that path, making this a golden opportunity. Anyway, let’s look at some details surrounding this game, and how it can be won.
WHAT YOU MIGHT REMEMBER
The two teams met twice last year, with the Hawks winning handily at home, and the Nuggets pulling out a one point victory back at their place. Player performances were mostly inconsistent, which comes as no surprise. However, there was a common denominator that I feel is noteworthy. Marvin Williams went to the line quite a few times against Denver in both contests (9 attempts in the first game, 10 attempts in the second). You can say it’s nothing big, but there is something about Marvin when he plays against certain teams. Maybe it was Carmelo Anthony’s lack of defense, maybe not. Whatever it is, the Hawks would do well to remember this and try to exploit it against Denver again.
Al Horford blitzed the Nuggets both times he played against them last season, averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. While that was certainly nice, the Nuggets also didn’t have Nene. At 6′11 and 250 pounds, Denver’s starting center is strong, fairly mobile, and has a smooth game, making him a tough opponent for Al Horford. I have to say that out of all the matchups in this game, this one probably excites me the most. Here’s the trick: Nene is foul prone, averaging a nasty 4.3 infractions per game. The Hawks need force the issue and try to exploit this by going to Horford and Smith early and often in the game. Speaking of fouls, Josh Smith will have to be doubly careful not to let himself get a quick hook, which he has done too often already this season. It hurts the Hawks because Smith is a source/threat of points, rebounds, assists, and help defense. While it’s true that his play on both ends of the floor has been inconsistent, the simple fact is that he can’t contribute if he’s not in the game. On the other side of the ball, there is Kenyon Martin and reserve Chris Anderson. Martin is no top power forward, but he’s enough of a potential threat on either side of the floor, making him a guy you don’t want to ignore. Fortunately, he’s also rather foul prone, and can be taken out of games in this fashion. As for Anderson, he brings energy, rebounding and defense, with the occasional thunderous dunk. Best not to let him have a good game either.
WINGS AND THINGS
Sounds like an appetizer at the Taco Mac or one of the other eateries at/around Phillips Arena, does it not? I’m getting hungry just thinking about it, and it’s not even 10 a.m. yet, as I write this. Ah yes, some nice ranch dressing on the side, give the celery to my wife….okay, back on topic. If you’ve heard any rumblings for MVP coming out of the west, there’s a second name along with the usual Kobe Bryant chants. That would be Mr. Anthony, aka ‘Melo. The Denver small forward has one of the most complete games in the league and he is on a tear. Leading the league in scoring at 31.7 points per game, ‘Melo is also shooting a healthy 47.7% from the field, to include 41.2% from beyond the arc. So who wants to guard him? Uh, Marvin….that would be you. ‘Melo looks like he can’t be stopped (even in last night’s loss to Miami), and we may see Joe Johnson on his hip sometime during the 4th quarter. But until then, Marvin will have the job of trying to keep Anthony from posting his third 40 point night of the season.
MAYHEM IN THE BACKCOURT
Here’s another place that things can get sticky. The good news is that the Hawks don’t have to face the athletic and sweet-shooting J.R. Smith. He’ll be riding the pine and finishing out his suspension. The bad news is Chauncey Billups is playing as well as ever. This guy runs a team as well as any, and better than most, and can take over a game by putting up his own 30 points on any given night. Opposite him is probably going to be Arron Affalo. The kid is still finding his way in his third year in the league, but he is energetic and can shoot it. Off the bench comes speedy rookie Ty Lawson, who is already proving to be an effective player (he’s the fourth leading scorer on the team, to put that into perspective). The Hawks of course, counter with two 20 point threats in Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, and point guards Mike Bibby and Jeff Teague. If Crawford bounces back from the debacle in Charlotte (shared by everybody on the team) and continues his high scoring ways, then the Nuggets will likely be in for a very long evening. At the same time, how the Hawks handle the upstart Lawson and how many minutes Teague gets to play may be bigger factors than we think.
THE DEFENSE RESTS
We’ve talked many times already about how the Hawks won’t be able to get away with lazy defense for two or more quarters agains the better teams in the League. Well, this is one of those teams. One quarter of lazy or inconsistent defense is bad enough. Add to that the fact that the Nuggets themselves are capable of clamping down on teams, and you have a recipe for disaster if the Hawks don’t get out of the gate early on defense, and maintain it for the bulk of the game. On another note, there is the matter of this phenomenon (or perhaps you prefer the term “plague”) known as the “switching defense” that the Hawks play. Perhaps 6 games into the season is a bit too soon to render a total condemnation of a gameplan or scheme, but we’re Hawks fans, and patience is not a strong suit. All the same, I’m going to wait on this one for a few more games. But trust me….there is a blog post (read: rant) on this subject just waiting to be born.
The first excuse that Hawks fans might think of in the beating served up by the Bobcats is that our guys are tired. Well, they probably are, especially after a coast to coast flight to Charlotte, where they ended a four-game road trip. But are they any worse off than the Nuggets, who come into Atlanta on their fourth game of a six-game road trip? If anything, the Nuggets will be just as worn out, and unlike they Hawks, they won’t have the comfort of playing at home. Either way, these are professionals, so it comes with the territory. Legs might or might not be sore, but nobody is going to get a free pass.
GRAB THE MIC AND TELL US…..
…Who you think will be the game maker/breaker for either team.
…Which rookie will get more minutes: Lawson or Teague?
… Whether or not Marvin will help slow Carmelo down on one end and cause the Denver defense fits on the other.
…How good you think the chances are that Joe and Jamal have the Nuggets seeing 20/20 (points, that is).
…If Josh and Al can stay out of serious foul trouble.
The game is on tonight at 7 p.m. Don’t be late, and show your Hawks some support!