Rise, fall of Hawks are tied to injuries

On the NBA

January 11, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

For the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday's game against the Golden State Warriors could not have come at a better time. The Hawks were approaching a record they wanted no part of -- becoming the second team in NBA history to have double-digit winning and losing streaks in the same season.

By beating the Warriors, Atlanta ended a seven-game losing streak. But the Hawks have looked nothing like the team that started the season with 11 straight wins. Since that start, the Hawks have been a below-.500 team (10-12), fading from first in the Eastern Conference to third in the Central Division.

In defense of the Hawks, injuries have been a major factor. Guard Steve Smith and forward Alan Henderson have spent time on the injured list.

But Atlanta's decline can be directly tied to the injury to the player the team can least afford to lose, Mookie Blaylock. The point guard has been bothered by an injured groin for over a month and played just 12 minutes against Golden State. On Friday, before an 82-77 win over Washington, Blaylock was placed on the injured list.

"We're not the same team without Mookie," Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens said. "But that doesn't mean we can't win some games."

Credit Atlanta, playing a home-and-home series with Washington this weekend, with not panicking during the bad stretch. There has been no sniping among the players, with the organization rightly figuring the team will get back on track before long. At least the good start gave the team the luxury of surviving the tough stretch with a decent record (21-12 after Friday's win).

"My team will be all right," Wilkens said.

Kemp's Seattle return

For Shawn Kemp, it's a huge relief that the Cleveland Cavaliers travel to Seattle only once a season. Still, when that one time comes on Saturday, Kemp will likely face a rude and hostile crowd -- far worse than the cold reception he got from his former teammates Thursday.

When Seattle visited Cleveland last week, former teammate and close friend Gary Payton refused to shake his hand before the game and reportedly ignored his former teammate when Kemp attempted to chat with him during Seattle's 109-84 win.

The Sonics have a right to be upset. Looking to return to the NBA finals last season, the Sonics instead fell flat because Kemp let a money dispute affect his play. When the season ended, Kemp vowed to never wear a Seattle uniform again, and he irked teammates by ignoring them when they tried to talk to him.

"His verbal commentary that 'I will never wear a Sonic uniform again' seems like it was a couple of days ago," Seattle coach George Karl said. "That was a very devastating commentary. Awful. Very strong. It hurt me. I'm sure it hurt a lot of people in the organization. So no, it hasn't gone away. It still stings."

Veteran Nate McMillan said: "I know a number of us tried to talk to him. He never returned calls. I paged him and talked to his

agent personally, and told him that whatever we say is going to be between me and him. if I could help out in any way. But he never gave me the opportunity."

In the end, the Sonics have the last laugh as they have been the best team in the league. That's because Vin Baker is a better overall player, which showed on Thursday when he outscored Kemp 25-9 and helped hold the former Seattle forward to 2-for-11 shooting from the field.

"The only special meaning would be just to get these couple of games over with so we can finally kind of end it," was Kemp's response approaching the Seattle game. "And I think after these couple of games, this will be kind of the end of the chapter, where I don't think people will feel like they have to talk about it as much anymore."

Austin on block

With the trading deadline just over a month away, Isaac Austin's name is popping up more and more in trade rumors. The Miami Heat can only pay Austin $2.5 million next season -- a fraction of what others will offer when he becomes a free agent.

The most-talked-about scenario is a three-way deal sending Austin and Jamal Mashburn to Boston, with Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups going from Boston to Sacramento and Mitch Richmond going from the Kings to Miami. Boston coach Rick Pitino has been quoted as saying that deal would never happen, although Austin would give the Celtics a strong presence in the middle.

A New York Post article last week had New Jersey -- and not Boston -- in the three-way deal, with the Nets' Chris Gatling and Kendall Gill being substituted for Mercer and Billups.

Miami coach Pat Riley would like to keep Austin, but if he doesn't make a trade he will lose the center without any compensation.

"You're right it's unsettling," Riley said. "It's unsettling because we have our backs against the wall in this situation -- and there's nothing we can do about it."

Around the league

Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley, named to the All-Star team 11 times in his career, is fourth in the balloting for the Western Conference -- and happy about it.

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