Coming off of back-to-back victories over the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic, the Atlanta Hawks square off with the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs on Friday night. Back on Dec. 2, the Hawks lost a nail-biting, 2-point decision to the Spurs on the road (thanks to a Tim Duncan game-winner), but the return engagement is in the much more friendly confines of Philips Arena, and that should greatly benefit Atlanta.
The Hawks have played electric basketball on the offensive end of the floor over the past two games, scoring 116.5 points per game, but the San Antonio defense presents a different animal altogether. San Antonio has "slipped" to just 4th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) in recent days, but with Duncan and Gregg Popovich in the building, nothing is ever easy on that end of the floor for the opposition.
With that said, the Spurs enter this particular match-up with quite a few injuries which could impact their ability to compete with the Hawks. San Antonio is expected to be without three major contributors in Tiago Splitter (shoulder), Danny Green (hand), and Kawhi Leonard (hand), which certainly evens out the talent disparity a bit, especially in the absence of starting center Pero Antic and with the up-in-the-air status of starting small forward DeMarre Carroll.
There are always a few match-ups to watch when the Spurs are in town, and their version of the "big three" is still intact, despite all of their injury woes. While Paul Millsap and Duncan may not square off in head-to-head fashion throughout the game, the winner of that battle should have a leg up on the scoreboard. Millsap has been quite effective from an all-court perspective in recent days, averaging 20.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game over his last 5 contests, and with Splitter out of the lineup, Duncan seems to be the only hurdle in his way from continuing that level of play.
In the backcourt, the Spurs will be deploying a great deal of their two-headed monster of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (especially in the absence of Green and Leonard), and dealing with them will be crucial for Atlanta. Jeff Teague hasn't played particularly well since the calendar turned to 2014 (36.9% from the field, 4.8 assists, 3.6 turnovers per game), but his defense will be nearly as critical as his offense as he attempts to slow down the All-Star level play of Parker. With DeMarre Carroll's status up in the air, we could see a great deal of "small ball" for the Hawks, leaving guys like Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack with the tall task of containing Ginobili, and team defense, especially in a "help" capacity, will be crucial.
The task of knocking off even a short-handed version of the Spurs is always a tough one, but the friendly confines of home make this a much more winnable proposition for the Hawks. At 15-6 at home this season, there is a real sense of confidence when playing in Philips Arena, and not even the vaunted Spurs should inspire a terrible amount of dread surrounding this tip-off.
Game Date/Time: Friday January 24, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia
Radio: 92.9 "The Game" FM