Atlanta Hawks Game Preview: Feb. 8 vs. Denver Nuggets

Dec 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. The Hawks won 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. The Hawks won 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks take on the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night. Can they get a new winning streak started before their west coast road trip?

The consistently inconsistent season for the Atlanta Hawks rolls on. Their most recent game was a valley rather than a peak. They came out flat against the Utah Jazz, resulting in a 120-95 loss. When the Hawks lose they have a tendency to lose hard.

To be fair, the Jazz are one of the best teams in the Western Conference. There is no shame in losing to them. The way it happened just left a nasty taste in the mouths of Hawks fans. Atlanta’s recent string of blowout losses would be concerning if they weren’t balanced by exciting wins over tough opponents.

This Hawks team is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in bacon, wrapped in a mystery. I haven’t figured them out and neither has the rest of the NBA. Anyway, the Hawks will look to get back on track tonight.

The Denver Nuggets enter Phillips Arena tonight, looking to avenge their Dec. 23 home loss to the Hawks. That game featured one of the weirdest finishes in recent memory. That’s quite the accomplishment for the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks, they specialize in weird finishes.

The Hawks trailed 108-100 in the waning minutes of the game. The Nuggets had it all wrapped up, they just had to close things out. They weren’t able to do that. Denver collapsed, there’s no other word for it.

Atlanta scored the final nine points of the game, all at the free-throw line. They would come away with a 109-108 win. The stunned home crowd in Denver could only look on in horrified shock. Dennis Schroder scored 27 points to lead the Hawks. Paul Millsap added 20 points, including the game-winning free-throws.

Denver got solid performances out of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but all that would be remembered is their fourth quarter collapse. Today is a new day, however, Denver will look to get revenge for a loss that should have been a win.

Feb 6, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives past Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles (41) in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 6, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives past Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles (41) in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Slow Starts And Blowouts

As I noted in the opening slide, the Hawks have a tendency to lose by large margins in their losses. In the last few weeks they have losses of 25 points, 23 points, 26 points, 10 points, and 23 points. That’s not ideal.

In each of those games they found themselves trailing after the first quarter. In many cases they trailed by double digits. KL Chouinard unleashed this nugget the other day that shows how early their poor starts have been surfacing lately.

It’s a bad sign when you make digging yourself a large first quarter hole a habit. I’m not sure if there’s explanation for why this keeps happening. These are professional basketball players that are coached by one of the best coaches in the NBA. There is no doubt in my mind that they are coming into these contests prepared.

Sometimes shots just don’t fall and the entire rhythm of the game gets thrown off. That appears to be what is happening to the Hawks. That being said, if they want to claw back towards the top of the Eastern Conference then these slow starts have to stop. Making a 20-point comeback every night is not a sustainable pathway to success.

Feb 6, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) looks to pass the ball as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) defends in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 110-87. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 6, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) looks to pass the ball as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) defends in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 110-87. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Who Are The Nuggets?

Are the Denver Nuggets good? It’s tough to answer that question. They have good players. They are currently in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Still, their record is just 23-28. They have promise, but they’re not “there” yet.

The Nuggets are led by Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, two veterans that would probably be best served as role players on a contending team. In Denver, they have to carry a significant portion of the offensive load.

Gallinari leads the Nuggets in scoring, averaging 17.2 points per game on 43.2 percent shooting and 38.1 percent from three-point range. Chandler has cooled off after a hot start, but he’s still having a productive season. He’s averaging 15.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 44.9 percent shooting and 33.8 percent from outside.

There are solid role players on this team, as well. Will Barton is a good scorer off the bench. Gary Harris Jr. looks like a “three and D” wing. Kenneth Faried has fallen out of favor, but he can still grab rebounds, finish at the rim, and bring energy of the bench. Jamal Murray has loads of potential and maybe one day Emmanuel Mudiay will figure it all out. There’s a lot to like about this team.

The Nuggets desperately want to make the playoffs, although, it wouldn’t surprised me if they pulled the plug and traded both Chandler and Gallinari. Each player could likely fetch a first round pick.

I’ve intentionally left out Denver’s best player. He deserves his own section. He’s a budding superstar and the torch will quickly be passed to him as his rapid development continues. Heck, maybe the torch has already been passed.

The Denver Nuggets are Nikola Jokic‘s team.

Feb 3, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) looks to shoot the ball during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 121-117. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 3, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) looks to shoot the ball during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 121-117. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

A Superstar In The Making

If you don’t know who Nikola Jokic is then I feel bad for you. This guy is the real deal and is a budding superstar. Jokic is averaging 15.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on 59.2 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from three-point range. He boasts a PER of 26.5.

Jokic is a 6-foot-10 big man with the skills of a guard. He can push the ball up the floor. He’s an exceptional play-maker and he gets buckets in the paint. His outside shot is still developing, but Jokic is the perfect modern big man. It’s like he was designed by scientists in a laboratory.

Jokic is only playing 25.9 minutes per game this season, as it took Denver a few months to realize he was clearly the best player on their team. He also has a tendency to get into foul trouble, Jokic averages 3 fouls per game. If he can get his fouling issues solved, he could be an All-Star sooner rather than later.

His well-rounded skill-set will eventually make him a triple-double machine. After flirting with it a few times, he finally nabbed one Feb. 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Nuggets coach Michael Malone noted to the media after the game that this won’t be his last one.

“This will be the first of many triple-doubles,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Jokic excitedly added a humorous quote of his own.

“Yeah, and I hugged him,” Jokic said. “I was naked and I hugged him. That’s true.”

Jokic will remained fully clothed during Wednesday’s game, but he still might put on a show. Paul Millsap or Dwight Howard will have a difficult task in slowing him down.

Dec 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur (00) defends against Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Hawks won 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur (00) defends against Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Hawks won 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction

The Hawks are better than the Denver Nuggets. This fact hasn’t stopped Atlanta from losing to other teams that are slightly beneath them in quality, but it’s still a fact that should be understood heading into this match-up.

The last time these two teams faced off an act of God or nature led to a Hawks victory. I wouldn’t count on that happening again. Atlanta needs to get off to a good start if they are going to win this time.

I think they will. Tonight is the night where the Hawks come out firing on all cylinders. Jokic may get his, but the Nuggets don’t have anyone that can slow down Dennis Schroder and Paul Millsap. Dwight Howard going against Jokic on the offensive end may even get the talented big man in foul trouble.

If Howard is getting post touches early you know exactly what Mike Budenholzer is thinking.

The projections at numberFire give the Hawks a 71.63 percent chance of winning. I agree wholeheartedly with the robots on this one. Atlanta will bounce back from their loss to the Utah Jazz by easily dispatching the Denver Nuggets.

Who: Denver Nuggets (23-28) @ Atlanta Hawks (30-22) 

When: 7:30 PM EST, Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Where: Phillips Arena 

How: Fox Sports Southeast 

Prediction:Hawks 102 Nuggets 90 

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