Forth-best

by Zettler Clay IV

I’m going to attempt to one-up Russ Bengtson: Nobody from Coney Island will land in this article. There. That’s out of the way.

Turning into the Hawks media parking lot, a policeman’s lights started shining in my peripheral. Is it? No, it couldn’t be. Yup, it’s for me. Before I set foot inside of Philips Arena, I am saddled with a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. That still happens?

So along with a cop pulling me over for the requisite 10-15 minutes and Atlanta’s notorious traffic, I arrived unfashionably late. Well not late, but too late to scurry all the pre-game comments I planned to do. So as any lifelong Atlanta sports aficionado, I exhibited patience.

Randomly checking my pre-game notes in the claustrophobic media room, something struck me as odd and vaguely unsurprising:

Chris Paul 11.8 apg
Jose Calderon 9.5 apg
Jason Kidd 8.5 apg
Chris Duhon 8.2 apg
Steve Nash 8.2 apg

Huh? In my aversion to all things New York Knicks, I missed the memo that Chris Duhon is fourth in the NBA in assists. How is that? The D’Antoni Effect. Free license to shoot with impunity tends to open up stats. So mission number one: Find Duhon and inquire if he is taking the stat increase in stride.

Minutes before tip-off and the Knicks are remarkably thin. On further rumination, for them to be 8-10 heading into tonight’s game is just shy of incredible. Putting up 105 points a night while running seven players is a testament to focus and dedication.

(Five minutes later).

Then I found that they are 1-8 against teams over .500. Let’s just move on.

The crowd is predictably sparse at the start of the game. Typical of Atlanta fans, waiting until the “opportune” moment to become engaged in the athletic competition. I can take that shot at the fans. Birth certificate and academic transcripts say so. But there is a positive notable change, if you’re the Hawks, from over the years: very few New York fans are there too. Baby steps people, baby steps.

All in all, there were three things to look out for in this game:

D’Antoni-Ball. Since imbibing the Jack McCallum tome on Phoenix’s quick-shooting prowess, I became fascinated with the philosophy of a man who blatantly admits that entertaining the fans is a number one priority. Here was a man with some ballsiness, bucking the trend of the plodding mechanical offenses at the time and basically said, “Screw it. Coaches do too much. Let’s put more emphasis back on the players and give the fans a show.” Fans loved it, other teams’ players secretly wanted to play for them (with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs roster) and Phoenix became better.

How are the Knicks really doing on a seven-man rotation?

Josh Smith and his ankle. Today was Smoove’s birthday so one would figure that he would come out and play with the fiery and jumpiness typical of a man who just turned 23 and…who regularly plays with fiery and jumpiness. If there was ever a prime time to trigger his ankle injury, tonight was ripe. I did have a chance to catch up with birthday cat and ask him about any celebratory birthday proclivities.

“Happy birthday, man. Got anything planned?”

“Naw, man,” Smith says, grinning. “Probably going to chill out. Maybe Saturday night.”

There seem to be just a hint of disappointment in his eye as he said that. This is when I realize that he couldn’t do anything tonight, because they fly to Dallas. Good luck to him leaving Atlanta to celebrate his birthday in Dallas. The NBA, where celebrating birthdays in less desirable places happens (Dallas fans, don’t kill me. People generally come to Atlanta to celebrate, not the other way around. It’s true).

So how did the game turn out? Thought you’d never ask.

First quarter

– First play of the game: Joe Johnson isolation on Brandy’s ex on the block. If this continues, he’ll score 80. Joe gets to the rim easily, but is called for a travel. Well then.

– After a made bucket by Atlanta, Duhon jets the ball pass the half-court line with 21 seconds left on the shot clock and then launches a three with 19 seconds left. If Acie Law Not quite Marv in this pic, but you know...were to do this, he would be put in the doghouse.

– The Birds are sucked in: Al Harrington shakes Marvin Williams with a nifty behind-the-back dribble on his way to a layup. J-Smoove then receives the inbound pass and races down the court to convert an And-1, all in a span of five seconds. God bless D’Antoni.

– Atlanta starting five: Best in Southeast Division? A very-well known journalist asked me this before the game. I quickly refused to validate that question. After all, Miami has Wade and Marion and Orlando is 15-5. Then I thought about it: Would you take Mike Bibby, Jameer Nelson or Mario Chalmers right now? Which front-court would you take: Al Horford, Smoove, Marvin Williams or Hedo, Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard? Before you answer that last question, consider that the Hawks have Orlando’s number much in the same way the Marlins have had the Braves number over the years. From top to bottom, the Hawks may own the best starting five in the Southeast Division. I’m not ready to answer that in the affirmative yet, but it is a more legitimate question than one would think.

– Fan turnout is surprisingly low. Maybe tailgating for SEC Championship Game started early.

– The Knicks D? D’Antonian (more on this later). Meanwhile, Smoove immediately makes his presence felt with eight points in the first quarter.

– Got to love the Tim Thomas self-wave after a made bucket. He had five points in the quarter. His game total: 7. Yep, we know him.

Ciara is in the building. She’s eye fodder for sure. Looking to my left and right, I got the feeling the every male in there was thinking the same thing, times three.

Second quarter

– Nate Robinson is back. He seems to have perfected the “jump-to-shoot-and-then-dish-it-to-an-inside-player-much-to-the-surprise-of-the-defense” move. He has three assists from that move alone.

– Crowd is finally filling.

– The game is turning to a rout. Hawks up by 10.

– Nix that last point. It’s now a three-point game and the D’Antonian plan seems to have infiltrated into the Hawks’s playbook. While we’re here, let’s define the new term: D’Antonian is an adjective used describe a perpetually resistant-less defense. It’s not mutually exclusive to basketball, either. It can be used to describe other areas of life. Take money for instance. A “good offense” is to earn a lot; a “good defense” is to save a lot. One who spends their money frivolously can be said to have a D’Antonian financial plan.

– Smoove suddenly became the leading actor in the “Worst Possession of the Year” category. After a Horford kick from a baseline drive, Josh Smith passes up a wide open three, looks off an open Bibby, take two wobbly dribbles before driving into the brick wall that was Jared Jeffries (for that play at least). He spins wildly before throwing the ball to his dearest fan in section 103. Woodson looks like he has a migraine.

Intermission

– Talking to advance scout Paul Cormier, I asked him who was the most underrated, fundamentally sound player in the League: “One that comes to mind is a player who people know, but I love his game. He is a stud,” Cormier said, eyes gleaming with genuine fervor. “He plays at his own pace and for a guy who only has been in the league two or three years, he controls the game tempo better than anyone I have ever seen.”

Who is this player? None other than everyone’s darling, Brandon Roy. Henry Abbot would be proud.

Third quarter

– As Joe Johnson sinks a sick fade-away floater on the left baseline, it occurs to me that he has been mighty quiet. It’s been that way for the past ten games. He’s been more tentative on drives and greatly complacent on the jump shot. Something’s afoot.

– We finally have a “Zadidas” Pachulia sighting. We all need a little Zaza in our lives.

– Cookies! Impressive mano-a-mano steal by Marvin against Duhon.

– Chris Tucker is in the building. He needs to write a book teaching us all how to parlay two feature roles into $20 million per movie. I am actually typing this drivel because the court is devoid of action. For a basketball fan, I imagine that this is like looking at Medusa.

– A listless third quarter ends, putting many patrons out of our misery: Atlanta 17, Knicks 16.

Fourth quarter

– David Lee is a rock. It’s a shame that he doesn’t assert himself more offensively. Another Quiet, but effectivedouble-double (15 points, 11 boards) for him.

– Typical NBA game: Loaf through two quarters, mail-in the third one and intensify for the final stretch. That said, this game is getting interesting. Duhon, Lee and Quentin Richardson have single-handedly whittled the Hawks lead to one. A Johnson jumper (he finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds and five assists) put the Hawks up by three with 1:33 left.

– Philips Arena is BONKERS. Eerily reminiscent of May 2008.

– Down by three with 5.7 seconds left, Duhon inexplicably passes up an open three to force it to Al Harrington. Shot falls short. Hawks win. I’ll tell you what: I know a point guard on that roster who would have taken that shot. Crap. I tried, and I just couldn’t resist.

Post-game

Surely Al Horford would chalk up some bulletin board material for the Crimson Tide, no?

AH: What?!? Please, they could care less about what Al Horford has to say. (Laughing) They’re going to be like, “You’re a basketball player. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Get out of here!” Come on man.

SLAM: Well give me a score then.
AH: I’m going to say 27-16.

There you have it, Horford surprisingly picks Florida to win the SEC Championship.

Unfortunately, Duhon was harder to catch up with. He was out of the locker room initially so I decided to go chat with a few Hawks players. By the time I came back the Knicks locker room, ghost. It happens.

But I did catch up with his coach alone after the game, with only three questions for him.

SLAM: Duhon’s numbers have thrived in your system. Describe you and Duhon’s relationship?
Mike D’Antoni: We talk a lot. And I’ve given him the reins of the team to let him grow, and I think he’s getting better all time. He’s going to need time to mature into a real good point but he has the qualities and disposition to be really good.

SLAM: All things considered, how would you rate what the Knicks have done so far this year?
MD: Good. I think we’ve gotten blindsided by a couple of things. We didn’t get Mobley [Cuttino] done yet so hopefully that will work. And we’ve had two key injures with Nate Robinson and Jared Jeffries. I think that once we get a full compliment of players and get some luck, we’ll be OK.

SLAM: Are you feeling any empathy for Phoenix right now?
MD: No, naw, naw, naw. They’re another team now. Obviously I love my players there, and I hate to see them struggle. But they’ll get it together. They’re too good not to.

(As that last sentence is uttered, D’Antoni subtly shifts his body away. He then graciously yet quickly walks away.)