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Open thread: Regular season game 34

The essentials: Wizards (17-16) at Hawks (16-16) Make that 15-16
7:30 p.m.
Phillips Arena

This year:
November 11: Wizards 101, Hawks 90
December 21: Hawks 97, Wizards 92

Notable Hawks numbers this season:
16th in expected winning percentage (.475).
23rd in pace factor (89.3 possessions per game).
19th in offensive efficiency/offensive rating (105.2)
9th in defensive efficiency/defensive rating (105.9).

Key links (drop any others in the comments)
Hawks Blog with Sekou Smith.
Impending Firestorm.
Hawks BasketBlog.
Michael Lee with a thoughtful article on teams without their superstars.
You've seen this already, but Jake answers questions for
Post: Eddie Jordan looking to limit Butler and Jamison's minutes.
Times: Young guys are far.
KD with more on Brendan Haywood.
Impending Firestorm blog preview.
Atlanta Hawks Blog blog preview.
Competition Discussion: Atlanta.

Starting lineups:
PG: Anthony Johnson
SG: Joe Johnson
SF: Josh Smith
PF: Marvin Williams
C: Al Horford

PG: Antonio Daniels
SG: DeShawn Stevenson
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Antawn Jamison
C: Brendan Haywood

Tonight's lines
Wizards at Hawks: Hawks by 3.
Over/Under on Big 2 scoring: 43.5 points.

Big game tonight.  Here's all the reasons why:

The East is messy: The phrase "key stretch," gets tossed around so much at this time of year that it loses a lot of the meaning in my book.  I'm not really sure why it always seems like December is a cupcake stretch for teams, and mid-January suddenly is where the key stretches occur, but that just seems to be how it is.

With that being said, this really is a key stretch for the Wizards.  After tonight's game against the Hawks, we have a home-and-home against the Celtics, and a home-and-home against the Knicks.  Based on the way the Wizards are playing, the games against the Knicks should both be wins, and the game against the Celtics should both be losses.  Tonight's game against Atlanta is the swing game, and considering how jumbled the Eastern Conference looks right now (Atlanta is eighth, just a half a game behind us for fourth), we really need this one.  

And when we play Boston, I imagine we'll be more psyched than this.

You're eyes can deceive you.  Don't trust them: At first glance, you figure Atlanta, with all their athletic swingmen, is a full-throttle run-at-all-costs club, sort of like those Lamar Odom-Darius Miles-Quentin Richardson Clipper teams of the early 00s.  In reality, the only thing these Hawks have in common with that squad is their propensity for turning the ball over (26th in the league).  They play at one of the slowest paces in the league, and guard the hell out of you, using their length on the perimeter.  One would think that, considering their problems at the point, getting early offense would be a point of emphasis with this team, but it's not, for whatever reason.  

Hey!  I'm open: When Atlanta does manage to score, they do it mostly with one-on-one play.  It can be ugly to watch, but with their options, it probably makes sense.  Nobody on the team is averaging  more than 5.3 assists per game, and if we weren't talking about Atlanta, you could bet that many national pundits would mention this point.  

Where they make up for this, however, is by driving to the rim at all costs, as they lead the league in most free throw shots per field goal attempt.  You would think this would be mostly attributed to Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, but actually, it's Marvin Williams who shoots the most free throws per shot attempt, and by a wide margin.  Yes, this is the same Marvin Williams who was picked above Chris Paul.  As good as Smith and Johnson are, Williams' improvement may be the key for the Hawks right now.

On the minutes conundrum: As noted in the link above, Eddie Jordan is talking about getting Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison's minutes down.  They're both currently playing around 40 a night, which is near the top of the league.  My response is, don't talk about doing it, just do it.  Under no circumstances should both be out of the game at the same time, but since they play fairly interchangeable positions, it shouldn't be hard to get them rest.  

Knowing Eddie, however, this will probably amount to nothing more than talk.  That's unfortunate, but I don't think it'll matter too much.  We're not talking about a gimpy Gilbert Arenas, after all.

The X-Factor: Atlanta's Josh Smith is one of the most intriguing talents this game has seen in recent history.  He can handle the ball, play in the post, guard anyone from point guards to big men, and swat shots like no other from the weakside.  He can also take himself completely out of the game by hanging on the perimeter, shooting threes, and losing concentration.  

Hoopinion is similarly distressed.

Someone must help him figure out what he can and cannot do to help the team win games. Someone must take the ball away from him if he might attempt a jump shot in a key situation. Failing that, someone must keep Smith on the bench where he can't damage the team's chances of winning.

Smith is a career 26.7% shooter from behind the three-point line. Still he averages one-and-a-half three-point attempts per game. His feet should never be set behind the arc. Get him the ball in the high post and the low post. Get him the ball there a lot. Do not tempt him with the opportunity to take jump shots, the opportunity to make his rebounding, passing, and shot blocking come at a cost.

The key to tonight might therefore be to mess with Smith's head.  When we have the ball, we have the personnel to make him stick to guarding the perimeter instead of camping out in the lane.  Antawn Jamison's shooting therefore looms large tonight.  If he can hit some open shots, he'll pull Smith away from the basket.

Keys to the game: The Hawks beat us up inside last game, outrebounding us 49-33.  Their best rebounder, Al Horford, only grabbed 7, but he cleared space for Smith and Josh Childress to eclipse the double-digit mark.  Horford is always a handful, and only Mike Woodson's quick hook limits him on the glass.  This will be a good test to see just how far Brendan Haywood has come.  

Defensive rebounding indeed will be the key tonight.  The Hawks like to throw up a lot of shots and use their quickness to grab the rebounds.  We desperately need to counteract that in some way.  Butler and Jamison are key here in keeping Smith, Childress, and Marvin Williams off the glass.

On the other end, Jamison needs to be shooting judiciously and effectively to get Smith to move away from the hoop.  If the Hawks put Smith on Caron Butler, then he needs to do the same.  Smith can be an absolute terror defensively no matter where he plays, but he's less of a terror 20 feet from the rim than he is inside.  

Oh, and DeShawn Stevenson needs to stay with Joe Johnson, but I figure everyone knows that anyway.

This is an open game thread, so scooby doo Mutumbo here.