The second half of December will be prove to be a challenge for the Atlanta Hawks. They’ve gone 5 and 1 for the month so far, with four blowout wins over bad teams, one humbling loss, and one grind-it-out win over a good team. Not at all bad for a team that is out to prove just how good they really are. But after playing four of those six games at home, the Hawks finsh off the month (and the calendar year) with five of their eight games being played on the road. Among the most daunting? Utah visits the Highlight Factory this Friday, the Hawks travel to Denver on the 23rd, and then face Cleveland in back to back games on the 29th and 30th. In between all of that is are visits to Indiana, Minnesota, and Chicago. Indy and Chicago have already felt the wind from the Hawks’ wings. Will Minnesota succumb to the flurry of talons as well, or prove to be an opponent that can compete?
You can never truly assume anything in the NBA when it comes to wins and losses, and the first quarter of this season has proven that often enough. Still, the good teams tend to remain good, and the bad teams tend to remain bad, at least for a while. But what about those that are in transition? The Hawks know what it’s like to be in that middle space, where nobody can really decide if and when you’re about to turn the corner from bad to good. That’s where tonight’s opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, find themselves at the moment.
HAWKS VS GRIZZLIES
With a record of 10 wins and 14 losses, the Grizzlies figure on being part of the “you’re bad” contingent of NBA teams. They’ve suffered some bad losses (arguably none worse than the 120-93 drubbing at the hands of the Utah Jazz), but have recorded somewhat improbable wins against teams like Portland. They reeled off three straight against Minnesota, Dallas, and Cleveland before losing to Oklahoma City in a shootout, then falling to the league-leading Celtics by just five points. Clearly the Grizzlies have the capability, if not the consistency, to cause any team a problem. The Hawks would be best served to treat them as such, and keep up their guard for the entire game.
Atlanta and Memphis met twice last year. The first time was about 17 games into the season. All of the Hawks starters scored in double figures, led by Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, who made life absolutely miserable for the Grizz enroute to a ten point win. In the second meeting, the Hawks played without three starters, while the Grizz played with all of their starters enroute to an eight point win in what was the Hawks’ last game of the regular season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rudy vs. Marvin
This one has to be bringing the most blog heat. Much has been made about the two players, if only for the sake of comparison of the obvious: Rudy Gay enjoys the more prominent role and has the stats to make his case. Gay is Memphis’ leading scorer and is playing pretty good basketball right now. Considered one-dimensional for a while, Gay has shown that he can rebound well from the small forward spot, and defend (1.78 spg, .91 bpg). One of the biggest keys to the Grizzlies beating the Cavaliers? Gay’s defense on Lebron James.
Meanwhile, Marvin Williams has his work cut out for him. On offense, he’s the fifth option these days, and unless Coach Woodson or his teammates decide to heavily involve him, he won’t have the advantage of making Rudy Gay work on defense. On the other side of the ball, Gay is more than a handful. He’s quick in the open court, and can be just as tough to deal with in the halfcourt. As it stands, Gay’s only true weakness on offense seems to be at the three point line, where he’s hitting only 33%. What’s scary is that Gay is hitting roughly 48% overall, meaning that he is hitting a very good percentage of his other shots. Can Marvin keep him contained, thereby putting the pressure on O.J. Mayo, Zach Randolph, and others to produce?
Zach vs. Josh
Zach Randolph has been so quiet in Memphis, most folks probably forgot he was even still in the league. On the court, however, he makes all the noise he needs to. Randolph is averaging 18.7 ppg on 49% shooting, and grabs 10 rebounds a game to go with it. Randolph can score inside on a variety of moves, or hit the midrange jumper. He’s not the fastest guy down low, but he surely isn’t the slowest. However, defense is not and never has been his forte. Enter Josh Smith, who though averaing 15 points per game, is also shooting an efficient 52% from the field, and has become a bonafide assist threat.
Josh is playing the best defense of his young career. He’s still the widely feared shot blocker, but he now also gets a good number of steals and deflections, and does a lot more than just try to get the big block. Smith is also hitting the boards harder on both ends, using his insane leaping ability and doing the simple fundamental stuff like blocking out. Randolph will be a good challenge for Smith on the defensive end, but what of the offensive end? As stated before, Randolph is less than impressive on defense. If the Hawks get Smith going early, it may be a very long night for Randolph on both ends of the floor. However, if Smith gets into foul trouble early or has other issues, Randolph will make Atlanta pay the price.
OJ May vs. Joe Johnson
The third member of the Memphis scoring triumverate, Mayo is on his way up in the NBA game. Experts and amateurs alike wondered whether he would end up being a point guard or a shooting guard. For now, the Grizzlies have him at the 2 spot, leaving lottery draft pick Mike Conley to run the show. That doesn’t take away Mayo’s ability to make plays, but scoring is his main purpose as it stands right now. And score he has. Mayo shoots 47% on this run-and-gun team, producing 17.7 ppg, which is good for third on the team. On defense, Mayo has quick hands and can get steals, but his discipline is still lacking. Similarly, Mayo’s discipline shows in his turnovers on offense. But don’t be fooled. The kid can play, dropping 20 or more points on teams like Utah, Dallas, and Cleveland. The most convinced recipient of his offensive prowess? That would be Denver, who watched him score 40 on November 1st. Though his three point percentage doesn’t exactly suggest it, Mayo can be deadly from three point range…when he gets hot.
On the other hand, Mayo will have those quick hands full with one of the trickiest ball handlers in the league. Joe Johnson has the ability to play keep-away against more than one player, but he can be pick-pocketed if he gets too carried away with his probing dribble. If Joe decides to post up, Mayo is in serious trouble. If Joe attacks quickly, Mayo is in serious trouble. If Joe takes more than four or five seconds to decide where he is going to try and get his shot, and dribbles the whole time he’s thinking, Mayo has a good chance to disrupt his game. However, Johnson is also one of the best in the league at getting off (and making) difficult shots. Mayo will have to be well grounded and very disciplined to stay with and hope to contain Joe Johnson. If this happens, he still has to deal with Joe’s playmaking ability, which is superior to Mayo’s. What’s a guy to do? Besides hoping that Joe is off his shot and not in the mood to pass to anybody, there isn’t much else for Mayo other than to learn from the lesson that’s coming to him….
Marc Gasol vs. Al Horford
A tale of two hard-working big men, if there ever was one. Gasol and Horford share a lot in the stat box. Both get a decent amount of points per game for not being one of the top 3 offensive options on their teams, both are just a hair under averaging a double double per game, and both collect a nice amount of blocks and assists, while also shooting a very high percentage from the field. Gasol has the physical advantage of three or four inches, in addition to about 25 or 30 pounds. But is he as strong or stronger than the bullish Horford, who will have the advantage of speed? Both players are don’t-give-up-or-give-in types who may neutralize each other in this game. Or, one might find the chink in the other’s prodigious armor, and exploit it. Hard to say which way this will go.
Jeff Teague vs. Jamaal Tinsley
Yeah, I know. This most likely has nothing to do with the outcome of this game, but I see an important opportunity and lesson here for the young Atlanta point guard. Tinsley doesn’t play much these days (about 16-17 mpg), but it doesn’t change who and what he is: a bigger, more physical point guard than Jeff Teague. Teague may get to play against the fleet Mike Conley, but will he learn as much against him as he would against the veteran Tinsley? Sometimes a guy who has fallen from promise and near-prominence is the hardest to compete against. That describes Tinsley to a “T”. He’s not shooting very well, but his assist-to-turnover ration is good, and he seems fine in his role as backup. It would be a change of pace for Teague if he gets matched up with Tinsley, who has more savvy than most of us probably remember.
Who is the X-factor in this game? You know, the ONE guy who may have the most influence in the outcome. I’m never any good at picking just one person, as is evidenced by each and every post (call me wish-washy if you must), but if you have the stones to take a shot at it, let’s hear it!
While you’re at it, what do you think attendance will be like? How about against Utah this Friday? Will both games see roughly the same number of fans? Of course, enthusiasm can sometimes make up for numbers. Or so a fan thinks…