The Atlanta Hawks are among the NBA's elite this season and the Nuggets already had one up close and personal look at this team ... and it wasn't pretty. Tonight the well rested Nuggets get a shot at revenge against the Hawks, who are in town after crushing the Timberwolves last night in Minnesota (112-87).
The particulars ...
Denver: 19-9 (12-1 at home, 7-8 on the road)
Atlanta: 20-7 (12-2 at home, 8-5 on the road)
Denver: Chauncey Billups (left groin) and Johan Petro (left ankle) are both listed as questionable tonight.
Atlanta: Joe Smith (dislocated left thumb) is out.
Opposition's Take: Peachtree Hoops
Back on November 7th the Nuggets lost to the Hawks 125-100. Let's roll out the Polar Express also known as the Excuse Train ... the Nuggets were without injured Kenyon Martin and suspended J.R. Smith and were playing the second game of a back-to-back having played and lost in Miami the night before. Had the Nuggets been at full strength and not played the second of a back-to-back would they have won? Well, we can't even say tonight will prove that because the Hawks are coming in, as noted above, after playing in Minnesota last night.
Atlanta did have an easy time with the T-Wolves, but they didn't really get to rest their rotation guys too much. Al Horford logged 41 minutes, Joe Johnson 34, Marvin Williams 31, Mike Bibby 28, Jamal Crawford 27, Josh Smith 21 and Maurice Evans and Zaza Pachulia played 20 minutes each.
Jamal Crawford continues to look like a great addition to this team as he's averaging 16.5 points off the bench as the Hawks "J.R. Smith" clone (or maybe since Craw is the vet Smith is his clone?). Anyhow, on NBA TV last night they threw out the 20+ points stat for Crawford ... when he scores 20+ points the team is 9-2. So, I wanted to know if shutting him down is the key to beating the Hawks ... well when he scores below his season average of 16.5 points (or in this case 15 points or less) the Hawks are 9-4. Whether Crawford is having a good night offensively or a off night the Hawks still have put up a 18-6 record and that's the great thing about ATL ... their depth.
Who can defenses focus on when playing the Hawks? Pick your poison. Last night the Hawks had 6 players score in double figures and they can basically play to any style. You want to go inside? Horford, Williams and Josh Smith can score inside. You want to play outside? Crawford, Bibby, and Joe Johnson (J.J.) will eat you alive if you leave them open on the perimeter. Do you want to crowd the shooters and force them to drive? J.J. is one of the best guards in the league at getting into the lane and either finishing around the rim or finding a slashing big man for an easy bucket.
Atlanta can also play in transition or the half court and they play defense to boot, allowing just 96.6 points per game while scoring 105.5 points (tops in the East and 4th in the NBA). It should come as no surprise that with their win last night the Hawks tied their franchise mark for the best start through 27 games. Head coach Mike Woodson attributes the success of the team to their core guys playing together for four seasons now and I think he is right. When you get used to playing with the same guys it's just easier ... you know where they need/want the ball on offense and you also can communicate on defense without even having to say anything.
It's no secret that Denver has not been playing well over their last two games. A tough loss in New Orleans on Dec. 18th and a lack of effort loss against the Grizzlies in Memphis on Dec. 20th. The Nuggets have had two full days off to try and cure what ails them and playing at home at the Pepsi Center could be just what the team needs. The Nuggets are 10-5 against Eastern Conference teams this season and a perfect 5-0 at home against the East.
I'm not sure if we'll see Billups tonight as Ty Lawson is penciled to start for the second time this season. Bibby doesn't have great size, but he can play in the post and we've seen guards try to post Lawson up all season so tonight should be no different.
Crawford, Josh Smith and J.J. proved to be problems for the Nuggets in their first matchup as the trio combined to score 69 points against the Nuggets. The Hawks, again with the depth, had seven players score in double figures against Denver on Nov. 7th, including all five starters.
Having Kenyon Martin in the lineup should prove better at slowing down Josh Smith than Renaldo Balkman, Birdman and Joey Graham did in the first matchup. We can continue to say it until we are blue in the face ... the Nuggets must must get after the rebounds tonight. Atlanta doesn't have the biggest guys around, but they are athletic and rebound as a team. I'd like to see Denver improve on the 10 offensive boards they were able to snare against the Hawks in ATL and that is done almost solely on effort (and maybe not so many rushed outside shots in transition).
Who could use a good game?
Obviously Ty Lawson's first career start didn't go as well as he could have hoped, but he is a rookie so I'll let him slide for now. The Nugget who could use a "pick me up" game is Arron Afflalo. After scoring 17 points back on December 3rd against Miami - Double-A has looked like a minor leaguer. Afflalo hasn't scored in double figures over his last nine games and is shooting an unimpressive 32% from three-point land over that same stretch (8-25) including an 0-6 night against the Hornets from deep. All NBA players go through shooting slumps and it'd be nice to see Afflalo break out of his mini-slump tonight.
Just wanted to mention a couple of key notes that have occurred this week.
- Joel Przybilla of the Portland Trail Blazers ruptured his right patella tendon and dislocated his patella in Tuesday's (Dec. 22) win over Dallas. He is out indefinitely. Przy is probably going to miss the rest of the season and that's a shame. The Blazers have been hit very hard by injuries this season and I was hoping they'd be the team to push Denver this season to make the Nuggets work to maintain the division title and that's probably not going to happen unless Portland makes a trade for a big man (something the Nuggets need) or can muster up some Houston Rockets type mojo.
- The Utah Jazz traded promising rookie point guard Eric Maynor to the Oklahoma City Thunder for basically nothing other than a salary dump of Matt Harpring's expiring contract. Bill Simmons warned that teams would give up quality players if they could save money in this economy and it's looking like he might be right. We might see some interesting deals as the trade deadline approaches.
Photo courtesy of Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images