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What a year it was covering this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. The acquisition of Dwight Howard jump started the summer with a jolt of excitement. The Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy alum came aboard with hopes to bring a championship to his hometown.

Instead, he ended the season sitting on the bench as his teammates clawed back from a 19 point deficit, only to come up short in game 6 versus the Wizards. That wasn’t the first time this season he sat during a crucial run, and the first year of the Howard experiment can be deemed a failure.

“ It doesn’t matter about matchups, said Howard in his exit interview. “ I want to play. I don’t care who is out there. I want to give the best for my team and the city. That is why I came here. So it is upsetting when you want to get out there and play. You work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you, not the coach taking it — but Washington taking the opportunity of us moving to the next round.”

First-year starter Dennis Schroder took advantage of his opening round matchup against All-NBA point guard John Wall — as he did against several elite point guards throughout the year — validating that the organization made the right decision when they handed him the keys over Jeff Teague. Paul Millsap’s free agency talk dominated and overshadowed much of his big-time all-star performances, as if his game needed further neglect on the national stage. However, to the credit of head coach and team president Mike Budenholzer, it never seemed to become a distraction.

Whether it was Millsap’s free agency, Schroder and Howard’s argument in the third quarter versus the Warriors during a live possession or Schroder’s late arrival from All-Star break due visa issues — the team remained positive and focused.

In the last four seasons under Budenholzer none of his teams were more inconsistent, erratic and perplexing than this 2016–2017 ballclub. The hot 9–2 start occurred so early it now qualifies as a mirage. By the end of December they were a more realistic 16–16. At that time they had a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (and would later win the season series 3–1), but suffered losses against the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.

The month of January was very telling in terms of just how unsettled they were. Starting on the 13th until March 6th they never notched a winning streak more than two games. Win one, lose the next, win another, lose the next, identity crises at its finest.

Kent Bazemore expressed the same sentiment to me after asking him about the team’s issues following a 131–120 loss in December to the Orlando Magic that dropped their record to 12–13.

“This is a very deep team and we have a lot of guys who can play so it’s all about finding that rhythm as a unit”, Bazemore said. “We’ve had glimpses of both units doing well. The bench started off the season doing well, then the starters got going, so it’s a lot going on and not enough consistency. But we are not going to get it back all at once and we are still trying to figure out who we are.”

The lows were pretty damn low and can be summed up in a moment I personally witnessed covering the Brooklyn Nets routing on March 26th that handed the Hawks their seventh loss in a row. A fan casually strolled down from his seat into the credentialed media seating, nachos and soda in hand, and took a seat with the rest of us. Clearly he’d come to the conclusion at that time that the Hawks didn’t care, so why should he? Security never approached the gentleman or redirected him back to his original seating. He just sat there, apathetic, disinterested, scarfing down some nachos.

Their identity never seemed to take shape and why a large portion of the season Budenholzer experimented with several lineups during games looking for a spark on a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Millsap spent plenty time at the five, Bazemore took over point guard duties at times and even Kyle Korver played power forward occasionally. Compound that with a defense that poorly defended the three-point line in today’s NBA and well you’ve put yourself in a tough spot.

Those spots ranged from out of playoff contention momentarily midway through the season to losing 9 out of 11 games (with Millsap and Bazemore missing games due to injury) down the stretch that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy and having to wait until the 79th game to breath a sigh of relief.

Schroder struggled limiting turnovers, Howard hurt the defense by staying in the paint during pick-and-roll situations and Bazemore’s $70 million contract seemed to cause him to press. The list goes on and on, but nuzzled in it all were some of the most thrilling moments in Hawks history. The 26 point deficient at the start of the fourth quarter comeback victory versus Cleveland on April 9th, the overtime upset over the San Antonio Spurs and of course who can forget what took place on January 29th — the quadruple overtime victory over the New York Knicks — just the 11th time in NBA history.

The game lasted four hours as people stood by the exit doors with one foot in the arena one foot out not able to tear themselves away from what was taken place.

Rookie Taurean Prince and pending restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. also provided optimism and excitement throughout a treacherous seven months. Prince took advantage of Bazemore and Sefolosha’s injuries by showcasing his versatility and therefore cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Hardaway deserved Most Improved Player consideration after turning his 2015–2016 woes into a distant memory by becoming the team’s scoring spark they severely needed especially after Kyle Korver was dealt.

In the end this team surpassed many preseason predictions that slotted them for a low seeding at best. Another franchise-alternating free agency awaits them in the coming months, but as far as 2016–2017 went they were willing to fight no matter how steep the odds — despite being ill-equipped with the necessary firepower.

“This group was a fighting group,” said Paul Millsap after game 6 loss. “With the ups and downs we had, we found a way to fight and compete. We shut down a lot of naysayers. We had a lot of people that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We just ran into a team that was hot, the Wizards were hot. I like this team and the fight in this team.”

All stats courtesy of NBA.com

The Atlanta Hawks’ roller coaster season ended on Friday after the Washington Wizards won Game 6 in Atlanta after blowing the game open in the fourth quarter, squashing any hopes of a Hawks comeback — having trailed by as many as 22 points — and a possible Game 7. The Wizards won the series 4-2 and will advance to the second round where they’ll play the Boston Celtics.

On the night, turnovers killed the Hawks (especially in the first half) but the Hawks lost this series for plenty of other reasons than the turnovers they committed in Game 6.

Why, ultimately, were the Hawks bested by the Wizards in 6 games?

Too much Wall and Beal

The Hawks didn’t do a good enough job of limiting John Wall and Bradley Beal, who were probably the best two players in this entire series, certainly two of the best three players in this series (Paul Millsap being the other one). Wall averaged 29.5 PPG on 52.5% shooting from the field, 47.4% from three and 10.3 assists per game. Beal, meanwhile, averaged 25.8 PPG on 46.2% shooting from the field and 26.4% from behind the arc.

John Wall

Wall was easily the best player in this series and has been one of the best players in the entire first round of these playoffs. Period. You could tell right from Game 1 that this was a revenge series for the Wizards and John Wall who, of course, lost to the Hawks in second round in 2015 but felt they should’ve advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals if Wall hadn’t injured his hand in Game 1.

Even in Game 1, Wall was keen to show Schröder who was boss, rekindling some beef from the 2015 playoffs where Schröder, supposedly, told his teammates to hit Wall’s injured hand (something Schröder denies).

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Game 4 Recap

Eric Yeboah —  April 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

What didn’t go well

For the second game in a row, Atlanta beat Washington in several categories, which may leave little to nit pick. However, Dennis Schroder and Jose Calderón did fall into foul trouble with three apiece before the first half ended. John Wall and Brandon Jennings attacked and had their aggressiveness used against them the same way Paul Millsap has done with Markieff Morris over the last three games. Budenholzer opted to stick with Calderon rather than going to Malcolm Delaney, but the amount of ball pressure they are instructed to heap on the Wizard’s backcourt is necessary yet dangerous. However, tonight Jose’s impact was far greater than normal.

“Jose most nights will probably not play enough minutes to foul out,” said Coach Budenholzer. “With Dennis with three fouls it may have been a little risky, but I just thought the way he and the team were playing I wanted to roll with that group.”

What went well

Dwight Howard made his proverbial entrance into this series in the 2nd quarter, scoring 10 of his 16 points. The first three games, the Wizards were exceptional at denying any lob opportunities, and Budenholzer was forced to limit Howard’s minutes in search of more shooting in small ball lineups. But the offense moved the ball well in game 4, shifting the Wizards’ defense off of Howard and allowing him to run much more freely to the basket without bodies draped all over him. Kent Bazemore connected with Howard for a couple highlight reel lob sequences that ignited the team and encompassed the do it all game his box score showed.

“I’ve continued to work, watch film and pick my spots,” Kent Bazemore said. “The pace was amazing tonight, the ball was moving and when you get touches your comfort level goes up a little bit. When you got guys on your team that really believe in you everyday is a new day. This is just another product of believing and staying the course.”

The team answered Coach Budenholzer’s transition defense demands to limit John Wall and his ability to find trailing shooters by allowing just 12 points, as opposed to the 21 points the Wizards averaged throughout the first three games. They struggled with controlling the pace and turnovers in the first two games, but on Monday they cleaned up both areas giving them a shot to slow Washington’s fast-break opportunities.

Suggested change for next game in series for the Hawks

The Wizards will be looking to force the Hawks backcourt into committing turnovers, as they did so successfully in games 1 and 2. There will need to be a continued emphasis on setting solid screens and moving the ball with a certain level of speed to counteract the Wizards length. Budenholzer should also stick to keeping at least one ball-handler on the floor at all times to help keep the turnover totals to a minimum, as they accomplished in games 3 and 4.

Dr. J, Moochie Norris, Artis Gilmore and Ben Wallace sported some of the freshest Afros in NBA history. Each possessed a fire and flavor like a legendary Gil Scott-Heron track. The Hawks have had their fair share of Afros as well: from 2004–2008 with Josh Childress and briefly from 2013-2014 with Lucas Nogueira donning the natural. Now rookie DeAndre’ Bembry has taken the torch amidst a league predominantly infatuated with temp fades, high top dreads, mohawks and, of course, the all-around caesar cut. Bembry believes that he is helping to keep the throwback relevant, despite the fact that he has not yet played six full months in the NBA.

“Whether it’s the people that have watched me playing at Saint Joseph, playing high school in New Jersey [The Patrick School] or even back home in Charlotte, I’ve been getting a lot of recognition,” Bembry said. “Seeing kids with my jerseys and afros definitely feels like a trend is starting.”

Similar to Elfrid Payton’s weeknd-esque hair, Bembry’s dates back to high school. He started to grow out his hair around his sophomore year, but, after a notably poor AAU game, he decided to cut it all off. Bembry didn’t feel right without the natural on, though, and decided to grow the ‘fro back once again. He hasn’t cut his hair since.

Some grow out the ‘fro for its style, some in order to emulate their heroes, but, in this country, the Afro’s importance goes far beyond the hairs on one’s head. Since the late 1950’s, the Afro has symbolized black beauty and stands as a protest against Eurocentric beauty standards. Now 22 years old, Bembry understands the symbolism behind the fashion choice and, thus, makes sure that he always carries a piece of the fight with him.

“Back in the day people were growing out the ‘fros — black power and the fist is why when I do carry my pick I make sure there is a fist on it,” Bembry said.

Rocking the ‘fro comes with great responsibility, not only because of its important meaning, but because of the incessant day-to-day maintenance it takes. All of those aforementioned, ‘fro-rocking NBA players didn’t just wake up, pick it out and jump on the court — a lot goes into the preparation.

“I use shea moisturizer, you have to keep them type of juices in there and wash your hair at least every other two days,” Bembry said. “It’s unhealthy to wash your hair every day.”

Periodic picking of one’s hair is essential in order to properly groom and shape one’s hair to his or her liking. The pick is meant to be used in the direction in which the afro grows, giving it shape and texture.

“I pick my hair whenever I feel like it, especially when it feels like it’s a little pushed in and not puffy enough,” Bembry said. “That’s why you always keep the pick in your hair and it’s quick. When I wake up, I pick it out. You always need to have a pick with you — always.”

The culmination of these steps results in one of the most iconic African-American hairstyles. Yet, despite all of its glory and symbolic importance, getting made fun of is a part of the package. Bembry has heard it all, but he doesn’t care.

Original, nonconformist: the Bembry way.

“I’ve been called a bunch of stuff, like ‘Jackson 5’ and ‘mushroom head,’” Bembry said. “For me, it’s all about being different. A lot of people try and do what they see others do and I feel like this is something that actually stands out. It’s not in my plans to twist my hair right now. I want to be different and have my own wave.”

Mike Budenholzer announced at practice on Wednesday that Thabo Sefolosha would not play in Thursday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

Budenholzer had suggested yesterday that Thabo would sit, stating that there was a “little more uncertainty,” and that there was “not a lot to update there,” before confirming that he would be missing his sixth straight game today. Sefolosha’s right groin strain could very well keep the swingman out for at least one of the Hawks’ home-and-homes against the Cleveland Cavaliers this Friday and Sunday.

As of now, there is no indication as to who would start in his place, but the past five games have seen rookie Taurean Prince in the starting 3-spot vacated by Sefolosha’s injury. Prince will likely take the bulk of the 26 minutes that Thabo averages when he is on the court on Thursday — as he has been these past five games.

From a 9–2 start to out of playoff contention, from a streaking team to now stumbling into the postseason, the Hawks have seemingly endured it all this season. Sunday afternoon’s loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets completed their second seven-game losing streak of the season. Thabo Sefolosha was a late game scratch and, with the Hawks already without Kent Bazemore, Tauren Prince was tapped for his first career start. And, if you’ve noticed the flashes that he’s shown throughout the year, the start went exactly as expected.

 

“He did what he normally does,” DeAndre Bembry said. “He was aggressive offensively, got a few steals, created fast-breaks and of course the good defense. That’s what Coach likes about us as rookies — we play on both sides of the ball.”

 

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been the surprise spark for the Hawks this, but Taurean is giving him a run for his money. Taurean has accomplished what very few rookies under Head Coach Mike Budenholzer have ever done — gain his undeniable trust. At the wing, where the Hawks have a logjam of veterans, Prince has emerged post-all star break shooting 40 percent from three while showcasing his ability to guard all positions except centers all while also playing with a spirit this team desperately needed.

 

“I’ve just come into the second half of the season with a different mindset of how I approach things, how I approach practice and different preparation,” Prince said. “It’s helped me out this far and I think it’s helped the team out as well and I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, but turn it up a little more. Especially since it’s coming to the end of the season.”

 

Currently, he sits as the team’s fifth-best defensive player according to defensive Box Plus/Minus. Especially given the troubles that Dwight Howard has faced in this particular defensive scheme during pick and roll situations and given Bazemore’s increased role as a ball handler throughout this season, there was an opportunity for Prince to earn his keep.

 

He’s done so in so many ways, displaying his ability to chase-down blocks, rotate over from the weak side, contest shots at the rim, anticipate steals and utilize his length in passing lanes. Prince has brought another dimension to this Hawks team that they desperately needed.

 

The bravado that Prince carries onto the floor isn’t always prevalent within many rookies, but it’s something Bazemore noticed earlier in the season. He spoke about it with me in November following Prince’s 19 minutes outing in a 107–100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

“Just another testament to the Atlanta Hawks player development system,” Bazemore said. “A guy works hard every day and when he gets his name called he’s ready. That’s one of his [Taurean’s] greatest attributes — he’s fearless, he’s out there chirping, hitting people, finishing above the rim and that’s his game. It’s good when you can get a young fella this early in his career and be that confident.”

 

The confidence was always there, but every rookie needs that breakout game or two to reassure themselves they belong. Just a few weeks ago, following a 16 point performance — his career high is 17 — against the Memphis Grizzlies, he acknowledged that that moment had arrived. In addition, his five points, five rebounds, three steals game against Portland on February 13th and again his eight points, 12 rebounds and two steals in Boston on February 27th  were a testament to his work ethic and another indication that he belonged, according to Prince.

 

“I’m a firm believer in if you put in the work then everything will take care of itself,” Prince said. “This summer Deandre and I were here, so credit to him and the coaching staff for putting us in the best position. Just being in the gym — especially at the beginning of the season when I wasn’t playing much — I was in the gym a lot more just trying to get reps. I just always had that confidence because I put in the work and believe in myself.”

 

Who would have guessed that? As a young player, especially a first round pick, the images of walking in and being a bonafide stud play through your head on several occasions. However, understanding the importance of how to be the best at what your role is on the team takes some time. Once that hill is climbed and embraced there is more room for growth, and Prince has acknowledged that truth.

 

Now, with the regular season coming to a close, Prince has caught on at the right time. The core players are fully aware of his value to this team and believe he will be a difference maker when they need it the most.

 

“It means a lot when you have guys like Paul Millsap, Dennis [Schroder] and Dwight [Howard] have that type of confidence in me and it’s another reason why I continue to play with confidence,” Prince said. “For me, it starts on the defensive end. I feel like in the beginning of the season I had a different mindset, but I’ve learned to focus on what’s more important. I just want to continue to get better and that’s the great thing about it is I have a lot of room to improve.”

 

There are some good news and some bad news about the Atlanta Hawks…

The good news is that the Atlanta Hawks won a game.

The bad news is that the Atlanta Hawks really should have lost.

The Atlanta Hawks are in a major freefall losing seven straight games which included an complete embarrassment loss to the Brooklyn Nets. They were still in the same set of circumstances injury wise, playing without the services of Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha. One more loss and the Hawks would match their longest losing streak in the Mike Budenholzer era which happened during his first season in 2014.

Dennis Schroder finished with 27 points, nine assists and six rebounds. He was key in a 17-1 run in the fourth quarter, hitting two consecutive 3-pointers to lift the Hawks to a 95-91 victory over the Phoenix Suns. That’s the good news…

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President Trump’s first term has brought forth one of the most divisive times in both our country’s history and our personal relationships. Professional basketball players, like the rest of us, have been affected no differently. Back in November, Kent Bazemore expressed his “excitement” for Trump in the aftermath of his election and later, in February, Sporting News reported that Bazemore believed that Trump was an “asset” for this country. His close friend and Under Armour colleague Stephen Curry disagrees, but was pragmatic when asked about his and Bazemore’s relationship after Monday’s 119–111 Warrior victory over the Hawks.

“I don’t think you need to keep [politics] out of a friendship,” Curry said. “You accept people for what they believe in whether if you believe it or not.”

Head coach Steve Kerr can also relate with Bazemore and Curry on having close buddies that don’t completely concur with their political point of view. Kerr hasn’t been shy this season when it comes to expressing his disdain for the president. But, he feels that people should be open to contrasting opinions because freedom of expression is essential to our democracy.

“I got lots of friends that disagree with me politically and I have no problem with that,” Kerr said. “it’s part of our democracy and everybody can take their stance. That is their opinion, we respect it, we debate and we hash things out. That’s the way it should be.”

Back in November, Bazemore spoke with me, post-election, about the importance of supporting the new commander-in-chief.

“I am excited man,” Bazemore said. “Something new, obviously the rest of society hasn’t taken it well with all of the protest and riots. “But I think people all across the country are sick and tired of how things have always been and that’s why you get a guy like him in office to shake things up a bit. Make America great again is his slogan and as a President, we should stand behind him. I am all for change, never been afraid of change — Barack Obama said he has a shifting confidence in Trump. Like Oprah said, I think everybody can take a deep breathe now.

“You know I was reading a post the other day, talking about how Trump is what America is. I think that we should all come together during a time like this. Some people are scared of change, but I am not, let’s do it, let’s see what he’s got because that’s all you can do is stand behind him. For a man like him to be talked about as negatively as he has all his life and still assumes the position of power says a lot about him and his resilience and as a leader that’s what you want.”

Following the Bazemore’s and Curry’s sixth matchup of their careers — Curry the winner of five of them — the former chatted with Dell and Sonya Curry outside the visitor locker room as other family and friends waited for Steph to finish up his postgame media obligations. Once completed, the two greeted one another with smiles and laughter. The pleasantries exchanged reflected their relationship — devoid of the political divide that has soiled so many relationships since that fateful Nov. 8 day.

“Our friendship goes way beyond basketball or politics,” Bazemore said. “We have a very special bond, but we aren’t siamese twins or anything. We both have a way of living life.”

Curry has no fundamental issue with having a close friend that takes an opposing side in the political arena, as long as that individual can articulate his or her thoughts logically and within reason.

“As long as you stand by it and have a reason for it or what not,” Curry said. “That doesn’t change my perspective on who a person is.”

Bazemore, too, was coy, yet candid about the potential divisiveness politics have taken on his life, but concurred with Curry’s perspective of acceptance, regardless of beliefs.

“Circumstance or whatever you want to throw out there may shape our opinions on certain things,” Bazemore said. “But it doesn’t change the state of our friendship or anything. It’s life, you are not going to be on the same page with all of your friends, but what’s understood doesn’t have to be said — that’s my guy all the way until the end”.

 

Avery Yang Contributed Reporting

Paul Pierce has already paid his last visit to Philips arena during his farewell tour this season, while his two 1998 draft mates — Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki —  have yet to make a decision on their respective futures. Dirk has the option to return for one last go-around next season, but if not, then tonight’s 100-95 loss to the Hawks was his Philips Arena encore. He shares ties with Coach Budenholzer, stemming from their 57 highly entertaining Texas showdowns between San Antonio and Dallas, when Budenholzer served as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. Dirk has also been taking on a pseudo-mentor role in Dennis Schroder’s career, as they are just two of three German players currently in the NBA.

Here’s what some members of the Hawks had to say about Dirk’s legacy and what it was like facing him:

“I joke with my coaching staff often that I still have nightmares about Dirk,”Coach Budenholzer said. “I may have watched more film on him than any other player in the NBA. He’s a special player — so unique what he does at his size as far as shooting. He creates so many problems whether you put big guys on him, small guys on him, he gets to the free throw line. And I thought he improved defensively and as a rebounder. He is one of the special players this league has ever had and I have so much respect for him.”

“My rookie year I was at Golden State and I didn’t get to see him play much,” Kent Bazemore said. “I would just see him workout before games and he is so undoubtedly good at what he does. He is a true professional and I’ve always heard a lot of good things about him and his approach to the game. About how much he loves shooting.That’s why he is one of the greatest shooters of all time. There are things you learn from guys like that being able to sit out there and watch him — Kobe, Ray Allen — in their pregame workouts. You take certain things from it and just see how focus and locked in he is.”

“The memory I have of Dirk is him giving me 40 in Utah,” said a laughing Paul Millsap. “He’s a good guy and he plays the game the right way. When I was in Utah I played him four times a year and always had to match up against him. He has always been a tough guard for me. I see that Ersan does the one legged jumper and that may be something I need to add to my repertoire.”

“I think that he is a credible legend,” Dennis Schroder said. “He’s had an amazing career, then for him to be German and play against him again is a great feeling. He is a role model for every German player and he’s done a great job. He is amazing and I think he will get his 30,000 points soon.”

Whether he decides to return or not, it is easy to see the impact Nowitzki has had around the league.