It’s been a bit of a downslide for the Atlanta Hawks, who entered the season with increased expectations after reaching the Eastern Conference finals last year, then suddenly and disappointingly found themselves fighting for a Play-In Tournament spot when spring arrived. Defense was an issue for much of the season, and it didn’t help that John Collins suffered a right foot injury and is out indefinitely. But All-Star guard Trae Young produced a solid effort, led the league in total points and assists and rescued the club from collapse.
Meanwhile, the Hornets’ enthusiasm was also doused mainly because of porous defense, and the young club slid from the middle of the East pack. A mid-season injury to Gordon Hayward, who recently suffered a setback, only piled on. They recovered nicely and quickly, finished the season strong and rode the momentum of Miles Bridges and All-Star guard LaMelo Ball, both of whom enjoyed breakout seasons.
The Spurs didn’t have a winning record at any point this season and as late as mid-March were outside of the play-in tourney. But a surge helped by Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, coupled with the Lakers’ swoon, gave San Antonio and coach Gregg Popovich a new lease on basketball life.
When the season tipped off, New Orleans dealt with the impending bad news surrounding Zion Williamson – he ultimately missed the entire season with injury – and the Pelicans started 3-16. But just as the buzzards began circling, the Pelicans recovered unexpectedly, first behind the consistency of Jonas Valenciunas and Brandon Ingram, and then from CJ McCollum who arrived in a mid-season trade and gave the Pelicans some additional and needed scoring punch in the backcourt .
Charlotte Hornets vs. Atlanta Hawks (7 ET, ESPN)
Don’t expect the Hornets to shiver at the thought of a one-game elimination in Atlanta. Charlotte was surprisingly solid on the road this season (at 21-20, better than the Bulls and Jazz) and won in Atlanta earlier this year without Ball and Terry Rozier. With the exception of Hayward, the Hornets are healthy and frisky, and Ball has averaged almost 21 points with eight assists and six rebounds since January. Scoring is rarely a problem for Charlotte, but defense can be as it gave up 144 points in back-to-back games.
Young controls everything about the Hawks and dictates the flow, given his high usage rate. But he’s not terribly reckless with the ball, and his decision-making di lui is crisp. He’s particularly lethal on the screen and roll with Clint Capela. Young will either toss the soft lob to him or shoot the teardrop in those situations, putting plenty of pressure on the defense to make a quick decision.
With the talented young point guards on each team capable of superb performances, this could come down to the support and who hits the open shots. That means Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter are on the hook for the Hawks, and Bridges and Rozier and maybe Kelly Oubre for the Hornets.
San Antonio Spurs vs. New Orleans Pelicans (9:30 ET, ESPN)
Keldon Johnson quietly had himself quite a season and a finish, averaging 21.8 ppg in his last 10 games and giving the Spurs a secondary source of offense next to All-Star guard Dejounte Murray. These Spurs lack a true No. 1 and No. 2 major scoring option, but that’s no disrespect to those two players. San Antonio mainly gets buckets by committee, which makes them a bit unpredictable in good (and not-so-good) ways.
Spurs center Jakob Poetl is averaging a near double-double (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), but will meet his match in Valenciunas (17.8 ppg, 11.4 ppg) in what should present an intriguing battle for paint supremacy. Meanwhile, the Pelicans can counter with two prime scorers, unlike the Spurs. Brandon Ingram and McCollum (24.3 ppg since joining the Pelicans) are good at creating their own shots off the dribble, and they’ll see the bulk of the shots in this game. McCollum scored 32 and 36 points in the last two games against the Spurs.
Can the defense of Murray nullify McCollum this time? Surely, the Spurs will pinpoint a way to prevent either Ingram or McCollum from getting buckets and dare others to beat them. In that event, the Pelicans could use some insurance from Devonte ‘Graham. He’s been a bit of a disappointment since singing as a free agent last summer, shooting just 36.3% from the floor. He can wash away those doubts, or feed them further.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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