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  1. “Sure, Taurean! I can hug DeMar, while you take another game-winning shot!” **God’s Plan Starts Playing** Happy birthday to you, Malcolm Miller! How about this… you get to be an NBA starter, with the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors, on the very day you turn 25! Don’t worry, though. Your birthday matchup is just against the lowly Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet One in TOR). The only way to mess this up is to show up on the floor in your birthday suit! A lot of things had to happen to allow this 6-foot-7 product out of Holy Cross to hear his name announced during introductions at the Air Canada Centre. All-Rookie candidate OG Anunoby has been on the shelf this past week with a sprained ankle. Norman Powell has struggled mightily and is undersized for the position anyway, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey doesn’t want to overtax veteran swingman C.J. Miles just yet. So, filling in the space that once was prescribed in past seasons for DeMarre Carroll now goes to Miller, a two-way player who spent last season in Germany, the prior year in the D-League, and missed Summer League and preseason due to ankle surgery. In his first start on Sunday against Charlotte, Miller managed a rebound in 13 minutes while generally staying out of the way of Toronto’s efficient offensive lineup (110.9 O-Rating, 4th in NBA; 112.6 since the All-Star Break). Casey can afford to leapfrog Miller up the depth chart not only because he has an All-Star backcourt featuring DeMar DeRozan, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (20.8 PPG, 59.5 2FG% since Feb. 26), and Kyle Lowry, but also since he doesn’t want to tinker with, probably, the best bench unit going right now in the Association. As per basketball-reference, the 5-man lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl has been outscoring foes by 25.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s Casey most-utilized lineup not including the usual Jurassic 5 starters, and it has been dazzlingly effective. That’s even without Powell, who has been atrocious (39.6 FG%) since returning from an early-season hip pointer. The third-year guard parlayed a decent shooting effort and some momentous plays during last year’s playoffs into a four-year, $42 million extension deal that comes due next season. Barring some wild trades, literally every Raptor returns in 2018-19, and Toronto’s Coach of the Year finalist is at wit’s end trying to find a rotation spot that makes Powell playable, even versus downtrodden teams like the Hawks. “I feel for (Powell) because it’s nothing he’s done wrong,” Casey told Sportsnet radio last week. “It’s just the guys in front of him have played so well and executed… at some point, we’re going to need Norm in that rotation somewhere. It’s nothing he and (ex-Hawk Bebe Nogueira) have done wrong.” The Hawks have already been molly-whopped on three occasions by the Raps, losing by average final scores of 110.3-89.6. Yet it’s not the double-barreled blast of Lowry and DeRozan that has made the difference, nor the frontcourt tandem of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, when these teams have faced off. In each contest, Atlanta has found itself submerged by at least one of those Toronto subs: Poeltl and Siakam in November’s 34-point home defeat, by Wright and Poeltl in a 13-point road loss the following month, and by VanVleet filling out the box score line (19 points, 4-for-6 3FGs, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks) in under 19 minutes when last these teams met in January, another decisive 15-point win for the visitors at the Highlight Factory. The Raptors have mixed in sound perimeter defense on Atlanta’s most obvious threats, with steady ball control on their own end, to keep the Hawks comfortably at arm’s length. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had just begun dabbling with John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon in the starting unit with Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince and Dennis Schröder back on November 25. And together they did well, for about a quarter. Then the mostly unheralded Raptor reserves, plus Powell, stepped in and wrested the momentum away for good in Toronto’s resounding 112-78 win. But Atlanta’s starting-five have been drinking milk and getting stronger. Either that, or they have a steady, healthy first unit growing better accustomed to one another under the tutelage of Hawks U. As per nba.com stats, among 23 Five-Man Lineups playing at least 50 minutes together since the All-Star Break, the starting quintet for Atlanta’s 13.0 Net Rating (and 62.0 TS%) ranks 6th-best in the league. Only Philly’s Death Lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric and Embiid have fared better in the East. The Hawks (20-44) can hear all the Tangst from their fanbase, the “Let’s Blow, Hawks!” chants all the way back home, south of the border. And, yes, the notion they might earn their first two-game win streak in a month is fairly far-fetched. But they play tonight in search of a more competitive outcome versus top-notch competition like Toronto (45-17, NBA-best 26-5 at home), particularly on the road, where their own 5-25 record is tied with the Grizzlies as the league’s worst. Achieving a closer outcome will require continuing what has worked thus far among the starters, keeping careless turnovers to a minimum and committing to score at least free throws off the rare live-ball turnovers Toronto (14.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs, 4th-fewest in NBA) coughs up. Then, it will be up to T-N-T (Tyler and Taylor) and the M&M Boys (Moose, Miles, Morris and maybe Magette, in place of the ankle-hobbled Malcolm) to keep whatever leads or small deficits the starters managed to gain from spiraling totally out of control. Atlanta’s bench brigade (with Delaney) shot a balanced 18-for-36 from the field versus the setting Suns this past weekend, but they’ll have to be better defensively and in transition to keep up with the Raptor reserves. Toronto allows just 24.9 three-point attempts per game, a league-low despite playing at a modest overall pace. But the Raps also will be leaning on the birthday-boy to help hold things down in transition with Anunoby sidelined (note to Bud: no need to start any international incidents this time, okay?). So Baze (DNP-TANK vs. PHX) and Sunday’s “hero”, Prince, will want to scamper down to the corner 3-point spots and help open the floor up for Dennis and the bigs. Taurean’s 22 points (6-for-8 3FGs) led the charge in the Hawks’ oddly captivating 113-112 win over hand-down-man-down Phoenix on Sunday. And Prince tried his best to rename this town Taureanto during his last trip here, going off for 30 points (19 in the second half; 5-for-6 3FGs), plus 10 boards and no turnovers, to help make the final score closer than it really was. For Miller and the Raptors’ swingmen, will they find blowing Prince off his perimeter spots, and out of the paint, is as easy as putting out a candle on a cake? Make your wish, Mr. Miller. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. Sacto springs free another ex-1st rounder. ~lw3
  3. “What Ever Happened to Bebe, Jane?” Hey, Tank Mob! This game is for you. Ahead of today’s homestand-concluding game between your Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet in the GTA), I consulted a Ouija board, read through the tea leaves, shook the magic 8-ball thingy, and all indications that the Hawks end the day with some point total that’s less than Toronto’s is a stone-cold lead-pipe lock cinch, or whatever the degenerates call it in Vegas these days. The Raptors haven’t played since Saturday night, and they have previously logged double-digit victories over Charlotte and Phoenix following a three-day layoff. They’ve spent a couple fun-filled evenings in the ATL, including Wednesday night when the Hawks ran roughshod in the second half over a lifeless Utah Jazz team, and have had ample opportunity to scout out the Hawks firsthand. That game prep doesn’t include watching tape of the prior meetings, both washouts at the hands of the Raptors. There was the 112-78 singeing of the Hawks on this Philips Arena floor, back on November 25, where Atlanta struggled to find shooters capable of keeping up with a balanced Toronto team. All-Star DeMar DeRozan (2 points, 8 assists) wasn’t even one of the seven Raptors who ended that evening in double figures. But he made of for that the next time the clubs met, scoring 25 points to fend off a game Taurean Prince (30 points, 10 rebounds) as his Serge Ibaka-less Raptors prevailed, 111-98, at Air Canada Centre. No one in the Eastern Conference is particularly hot at present, as the Hawks are tied for the East’s longest winning streak, at 1. Blinded somewhat by their opponents’ hi-liter jerseys, the Raptors lost their last game in Minnesota back on Saturday, and have dropped three of their last five contests, and four of their past seven. But with Boston sliding back to the conference fold with four straight defeats, and Cleveland and Washington doing whatever the heck they’ve been up to, this is no time for Toronto (31-14) to start slipping around. Victory tonight for the Raptors might not only move them within a half-game of the Celtics, who are back in Staples tonight to deal with the Clippers, but it would all but certainly sew up an All-Star Game appointment for head coach Dwane Casey. His players have bought in to his promoted “culture change”, from DeRozan extending his shooting range, to his All-Star sidekick Kyle Lowry ceding minutes to the youngsters coming off the bench, to the team doing away with the stifling iso-heavy offense and spreading the ball. The Raptors’ seven leading scorers are each shooting between 35 and 40 percent on three-pointers, inclusive of center Jonas Valanciunas, who hoists a perimeter shot once every couple games. Now, Toronto is on the verge of becoming the favorites in the East altogether. They have the best in-conference record in the East (19-6). They’re above-.500 on the road (14-11), and a home-friendly balance of the regular season schedule awaits their return to Air Canada Centre, where they’re 17-3. Their point-margin average (+7.3) is far and away superior to Boston’s +4.4. And (this one’s for you out there in the Tank Mafia), Toronto’s record versus NBA clubs presently sitting below-.500 is a league-best 18-2. The sole slip-ups: at New York on the day before Thanksgiving, at Dallas on the day after Christmas. Suffice to say, this would be a horrible time for the Raptors to kickstart a losing skid with a head-scratching loss at the Highlight Factory. Now, none of the above is to say that Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks (-3.1 Net Rating in January, 20th in NBA, better than Milwaukee and NBA-worst Cleveland) will simply mail it in and weather a third-consecutive blowout loss to these guys. If the final point spread narrows significantly tonight, here’s what is likely to unfold: Toronto shows up a little lead-legged after so many days of media interviews and reading their own press clippings, and the Hawks catch them off-guard to start the game. Pace, in and of itself, doesn’t make this Atlanta outfit successful, as they’re just 2-11 (no wins since November 5) in their 13 highest-paced affairs (as per bball-ref). But if a rekindled Prince (17 points, 2-for-4 3FGs, 3 steals vs. UTA) and Kent Bazemore (3-for-5 3FGs, plenty of deflections, 2 steals vs. UTA) are beating the visitors down the floor in transition for open jumpers and easy scores, it could be a long night for the Raps, and the Tankmaniacs. Supporting-cast guys come into the game unfocused, notably OG Anunoby, the rookie forward who drew the ire of Coach Bud (touching off an exchange of bon mots with a defensive Casey) after he padded the final score with a dunk off a steal in December’s game. While a decent defensive player, Anunoby has averaged just 2.3 PPG (23.5 FG%) in his past four starts. He’ll need to center his mind on the basket, the ball and the game action, and not the guys in suits on the sideline. The Raptors get undersold on the Hawks’ season-long rebounding woes, and start getting gashed on the glass. They allowed the eight different Wolves to grab 15 O-Rebs on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jazz entered the game on Monday expecting easy pickings but were unprepared for the dual attack of Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins (combined 7 O-Rebs, 16 boards total) off the bench. Toronto will need Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and our old friend Bebe Nogueira to come in ready to box out and securing the ball on both ends of the court. The Hawks keep the game close through three-and-a-half quarters, and the old Raptor habit of a ball-sticking heroball offense resurfaces. Toronto has been in clutch situations 22 times this season, and their assist rate on possessions in those scenarios plummets to 32.7 percent (29th in NBA), worse than only Victor Oladipo’s Pacers. Throw in a “clutch” 70.3 D-Reb% (28th in NBA, just ahead of Al Horford’s Celtics) and that contributes to an underwhelming minus-5.6 Net Rating at crunch time. Fail to rebound, fail to keep the ball moving, and commit a few unforced errors, and this game could get uncomfortably tight… for some. But, unless several of these things happen, it should be smooth-sailing for those of us in the Tankinati. I suggest using the time between tip-off and the final score not stressing out. Instead, flip the channel, and binge-watching reruns of some of those shows you need to catch up on (if “This Is Us” is one of them, I highly recommend skipping the past Crock-Pot scene.) Or better yet, get down to The Highlight Factory, kill some time gorging on some cricket tacos, and spend the moments before the final buzzer exploring the wonders of the arena’s finest porcelain facilities. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “e before r… except up in Canada?” The Toronto Raptors welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the Air Canada Center… oh wait, Centre (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 Up Yondre), hoping to get back on the good foot against the NBA’s “worst” team and avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season to conclude 2017. As the Wizards learned the hard way, how successful the Raptors are today will hinge on how much value they ascribe to recent matchups, and to the word “worst.” 2016 ought to be instructive for coach Dwane Casey’s crew, heading into this contest. In December of last year, the Hawks followed up getting drubbed by 36 points in Atlanta, one evening later in Toronto, by getting pasted into maple butter (buttre?), a 128-84 blowout featuring a 42-14 fourth-quarter (quartre?) by the home team. But what happened the next time these two teams met, just two weeks later (latre)? The Hawks caught the overconfident Raps napping and blitzed to a 69-point opening half. Dwight looked like what Dwight would look like all the time, if he made free throws. Kyle Korver had a last hurrah. Malcolm Delaney looked functional. And late charges by DeMar DeRozan (DrEozan?) and Kyle Lowry proved to be too little, too late in a 125-121 win that propelled host Atlanta back to .500 basketball. So, Casey would be wise to take any tapes of last month’s resounding 112-78 win at Philips Arena and toss them in The Round File. The reigning Eastern Conference Player (Playre?) of the Week, DeRozan (2 points on five FGAs, but 8 assists) registered not much of a blip on the far side of the scoreboard in that game, and he and Lowry (4-for-7 3FGs, 13 rebounds, 6 assists) didn’t have to. Toronto’s dynamic duo turned into role players, as Toronto’s reserves (Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Jokob Poeltl, Fred Van Vleet) tuned up Atlanta’s beleaguered bench (combined 12-for-37 FGs, 3-for-17 3FGs) well into the second quarter. The Hawks’ similarly scatter-shot starters (startres?) (14-for-38 FGs), particularly Dennis Schröder (Schrodre?) (4-for-11 FGs, 1 assist, 4 TOs) and Dewayne Dedmon (3-for-11 FGs, 2 rebounds), were no match from that point afterwards. But it’s all a thing of the past. Or, at least for the Raptors, it should be. After getting dispatched by LeBron and Friends for the second-straight postseason, this time a 4-0 sweep, Casey and team exec Masai Ujiri acknowledged that cultural changes were in order (ordre?). That didn’t mean parting ways with star players, as the 31-year-old Lowry was retained with a three-year, $100 million deal. But it did mean scaling down on the stilted iso-play that defined the Toronto offense (offence?) for years. The Raptors are tenth in the league in pace, just ahead of Atlanta, after six seasons of ranking bottom-ten under Casey’s watch. They’ve turned to isolation on just 5.8 percent of plays (25th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 5.9%), after ranking top-ten in that proportion in each of the prior two seasons. As a continued hallmark from prior seasons under Casey, the bench’s +6.7 net rating presently ranks 3rd best in the league, behind the Warriors and Rockets, despite shooting just 31.3 3FG% as a unit (29th in NBA). “We can’t do it ourselves,” Lowry said to Yahoo! Sports. “We’re not superheroes. We’re not 6-foot-9, 270, if you know what I mean. [Yes, Kyle, we do.] We don’t shoot the ball extremely well like KD and Steph. We know we need a full team. That shows myself, DeMar, we care more about winning than our individual stats.” “What we incorporated was ball movement, man movement, equal opportunity,” Casey added. “We changed our philosophical approach. Is DeMar going to change his game totally? No. But he and Kyle bought in, which changes how we want to play.” DeRozan has committed to abdicating the dreaded long-range two-pointer (career-low 18.2 percent of FGAs between 16 feet and the three-point line), either stepping in for mid-rangers or going behind the line (career-high 16.1 percent of FGAs for 3). His shot efficiency has buoyed to a career-best 57.4 TS% while his passing has also improved (career-high 4.8 APG), emboldening his case to be a leading recipient of All-Star starter votes. Toronto bid farewell to DeMarre Carroll and replaced him on the top line with rookie OG Anunoby. And yet, the Raps have proven even more effective at shooing foes off the three-point line (9.1 opponent 3FGs per-48, 2nd-lowest in NBA; 34.9 opponent 3FG%, 5th-best), drawing would-be shooters to put the ball on the floor and forcing errors (16.0 opponent TOs per-48, 3rd in NBA behind the Hawks’ 16.4). That’s key when facing a Hawks team that doesn’t rely so much on catch-and-shoot 3FGAs (22.1, 14th in NBA) as they used to, but is deadly accurate when granted the opportunity (39.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG%, 2nd in NBA behind Golden State). The leading scorers in the East, Toronto (23-10, NBA-best 12-1 at home) joins backsliding Houston (yay, draft pick!) and Golden State as the only teams ranking among the top ten in O-Rating, D-Rating, and pace. And, they’re hanging right with Cleveland in the standings, tied for 2nd in the East. Which is why their most recent post-Christmas road losses, at Dallas (danke schoen!) and at OKC on back-to-back nights, have been most disconcerting. One day after sliding up to the best record in the East, Toronto flopped in Dallas, shooting just 33.7 FG% as a team. The ball got stuck in DeRozan’s hands too often, and as was the case in Atlanta, DeMar ended the games at Dallas (7 points, 3-for-16 FGs) and OKC (15 points on 7-for-7 FTs, 4-for-16 FGs, 2 assists) with fewer points than shots taken. He and Lowry have received little help from the supporting cast in fourth quarters (16 @ DAL, 19 @ OKC), where the team’s 24.8 PPG and 42.6 FG% rank just 25th in the league (FWIW, Atlanta’s 26.8 4th-quarter PPG ranks 3rd, while their 48.4 final-frame FG% ranks 2nd). As for Mike Budenholzer’s (Budenholzre’s?) crew, the Hawks come into tonight’s action seeking to extend their conference-high two-game winning streak. As was the case in the payback match versus the Wizards, a 113-99 victory that was perhaps the most encouraging win of the season, Atlanta (9-26; 5-8 this month) promises to be much more competitive over the course of 48 minutes against the Raptors tonight. Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh have served as adequate stopgaps in the absence of Dedmon (tibia), who should be returning soon. Ersan (Resan?) Ilyasova (last 3 games: 21.0 PPG, 63.6 FG%, 60.0 3FG%, 85.7 FT%) has gotten healthy and is playing well, alleviating both rookie John Collins and the overtaxed Luke Babbitt (DNP since Dec. 20). A fourth-straight 20+-point scoring effort tonight would be Ersan’s first such stretch since March-April of 2013. With Collins coming off the bench along with Marco Belinelli, the Hawks found enough offensive punch on Wednesday to give Schröder and the starting five a needed lift, for a change. Dennis has also benefitted from better (bettre?) balance among the team’s secondary passers, most notably the properly-spelled Kent Bazemore (5.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in last 11 games), Delaney (4.3 APG, 1.0 TO/game in last 3 games), and Isaiah Taylor (14 assists, 1 turnover total in last 4 games), increasing Coach Bud’s comfort level with his preferred small-ball lineups. Improving ball control and superior offensive rebounding produced 13 extra shot attempts on Wednesday, helping the Hawks keep an inexplicably listless Wizards team at bay. Atlanta’s per-game assist/player turnover ratios have improved each month: 20.9/14.3 in October (Octobre?), 24.4/16.4 in, well, the next month, and 25.7/13.8 so far this month. Their 16 O-Rebs against the Wiz were a season-high, helping raise the Hawks’ record to 3-0 when they amass 50 or more total rebounds in a game (0-8 when the opponent grabs at least 50 boards). Tuesday’s loss to the Mavs was the first for the Raptors in 17 games (16-1) versus teams below-.500. On the downside, they’re an unimpressive 7-9 versus the winning and break-even clubs. A loss to the Hawks tonight won’t sound alarm bells the way they did in D.C., where the Wizards’ loss in Atlanta dropped their record versus sub-.500 squads fell to 9-10. But with the schedule toughening up for Toronto between now and the next meeting with the Hawks in ATL on January 24, the Raptors want to ring in the new year with spirits high, not worrying about what perils (preils?) await them not only in January, but in April and May. Here’s hoping for a Thillre! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. What's the deal with players getting punchy with staff in Toronto? Was this staffer Blake Griffin's old buddy? ~lw3
  6. “This how they do ‘THE U!’ in Australia.” Not quite Dead from Downtown! The Atlanta Hawks brought what Bob Rathbun calls ‘moxie’ into the second half last night to dispatch the Knicks, and they’ll need more of that today to notch just their third home victory this season, versus the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot). Up North, fan fatigue is beginning to set in with fifth-year GM Masai Ujiri, seventh-year coach Dwane Casey, and the Jurassic Fifteen. Yes, the Raptors (11-7, 5-6 on the road) are on pace for their third consecutive 50-plus-win season. But the newness of their regular season success has been wearing on the fanbase. Consumer confidence remains weak that this outfit might match the advancement achieved by the 2015-16 unit that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s just November, but there is a lingering sense that we already know how this season’s campaign will conclude. Ujiri spent this summer shifting the deck chairs on Toronto’s Titanic. Just a couple years removed from shouting “Buck Frooklyn!” at a public playoff rally, Masai found it necessary to deal with the Frooklynites in order to save some payroll bucks. He sweetened the departure of former Hawk DeMarre Carroll with next year’s first-round pick, plus a second-rounder, in exchange for the immediately disposable Justin Hamilton. Toronto native Cory Joseph was sent off to Indiana for just one eternally stashable 30-year-old Euro-dude. After swinging for the fences before the 2017 trading deadline with a deal for Serge Ibaka (11.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who was brought back along with Kyle Lowry on a free agent deal, the Raptors’ biggest summer splash was with former Pacer C.J. Miles (out for today’s game while caring for a newborn). Sharing an Atlantic Division where all the hype is directed toward the budding stars on the Celtics, the Sixers, and the Knicks, fans are struggling to find a reason to cling their hopes on players like longtime center Jonas Valanciunas (career-low 20.1 minutes/game), who is only 25 years of age but seems to already be bumping his head on his ceiling. Ten players on the Raps’ 15-man roster are 25 years old or younger. But who among them is about to make a star turn? Swingman Norman Powell, starting rookie OG Anunoby, rim-plugger Bebe Noguiera, second-year space-eater Jakob Poeltl, or the injured backup point guard Delon Wright? Who have the Raptors been developing that will be ready this spring to help Toronto stay competitive with the East’s top tier? The task of producing answers falls upon Casey, who already has the thankless challenge of managing playing time for his two backcourt All-Stars. DeMar DeRozan (reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week; 24.1 PPG, career-high 4.4 APG) and Lowry remain strong offensive talents that get unfortunately lax on the other end, and they struggle to get it going for their team simultaneously in games. After averaging a career-high 22.4 PPG in 2016-17, Lowry failed to crack 20 points in scoring until his 14th game this season. He’s shaken off the barnacles during his last five games (20.6 PPG, 45.2 3FG%, 7.6 APG), but his running mate, DeRozan, is often off when he’s on. Such was the case in last night’s 107-104 road loss to the Pacers, where DeMar managed just 13 points on 6-for-16 shooting with four turnovers in 39 minutes, an inadequate balance for Lowry (24 points, 5-for-9 3FGs, 10 boards, 8 assists). Even with DeRozan in tow, Toronto shoots a high proportion of threes (38.0% of shots from 3-point range, 4th-highest in NBA), but isn’t particularly good at either making them (34.6 team 3FG%, 23rd in NBA), or at producing second-chances (20.7 O-Reb%, 23rd in NBA; 10.2 second-chance points per-48, 25th in NBA). The Hawks’ ability to turn the tide on Friday came when the Kanter-less Knicks’ jump-shooting cooled off. Keeping New York off the offensive glass and gaining decisive advantages in the turnover department (9 player TOs, fewest all season; one Knicks steal, fewest by a Hawks opponent since 2/25/2015) granted Atlanta 20 additional field goal opportunities, a season-high 99 in total. The Hawks need another strong defensive rebounding effort from Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Ersan Ilyasova to alleviate their starting bigs, and they’ll need to stay disciplined enough not to bail out DeRozan (8.0 FTAs per-36, 6th in NBA) and Lowry (91.1 FT%, 10th in NBA) with trips to the free throw line. Mike Budenholzer’s club hopes for a similar result on consecutive nights, but may have to pull away earlier in the second half to enhance their chances for their first two-game win streak of the season. The Raps are 11-0 in games where they led or were tied through the first three quarters, but 0-7 otherwise. Atlanta (seven players in double figures vs. NYK, not counting Tyler Cavanuagh’s 8 points in 12 minutes) will again rely on a balanced attack but will also turn to Dennis Schröder (26 points, 8 assists vs. NYK), who buried the Raptors in these teams’ previous meeting last March with 13 fourth-quarter points in a 105-99 victory, to salt the game away. There’s usually no reason to fret about the prospect of a small losing string, but few executives are as compulsive about their team losing, and growing stale, as Ujiri. A third-straight defeat for the Raptors, who just lost to the Knicks at MSG on Wednesday, might allow us to see just how easily triggered Toronto’s GM can get. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. ~lw3
  8. “Get Out.” Back to the Crab Barrel? It’s about to get a bit uncomfortable for the loser of tonight’s game, here at Philips Arena, between the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 in TOR). Several playoff-hungry squads (6-through-11 seeds, separated by five games in the East) are waiting for either team to fall in their direction, in hopes they might sink their claws into them. The Hawks survived what amounted to NCAA-First-Round-in-Dayton-quality action on Wednesday. In what exemplified more March Sadness than Madness, the Brooklyn Nets made just one more critical goof to allow Atlanta (35-29) to advance. Toronto (38-26) fended off the Nets at home themselves, back on January 17, but have gone just 10-13 since, a slide that led to some sharp maneuvering by GM Masai Ujiri to plug holes ahead of their upcoming playoff dash. At the trading deadline, Ujiri flipped Terrence Ross to Orlando in exchange for the Magic’s free-agent error, Serge Ibaka (career-high 16.4 PPG and 45.5 3FG%, plus 1.9 BPG in 7 games w/ TOR). He also converted the gravity-bound Jared Sullinger and a pair of second-rounders into former Suns forward P.J. Tucker (45.7 FG% in 7 games w/ TOR). It’s hoped that the pair of acquisitions, in combination with former Hawks DeMarre Carroll (questionable for tonight, sprained ankle) and Lucas Nogueira, will boost the Raptors’ subpar defensive units, taking pressure off super-scoring All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan (27.4 PPG; 12.5 PPG and 10-for-28 FGs last two games) and Kyle Lowry. When last these two teams met up, on December 16, the Hawks managed to turn a 128-84 loss into an embarrassment… for the other team. Barely two weeks after getting drubbed in Toronto, Atlanta returned to the same floor and caught the Raps off-guard, seizing the first half 69-52 before hanging on to prevail, 125-121. What was a key difference? While his Hawks teammates continued to shoot poorly from outside, Kyle Korver swished six of his ten three-pointers. In Korver’s departure, Atlanta (4-for-20 3FGs vs. BKN on Wednesday) will need to find a sharper shooter, be it Junior Hardaway or Ersan Ilyasova, to help keep pace tonight. At the time of that loss to Atlanta, the Raptors were putting up offensive efficiency values of historic proportions, exceeding 110 points in 27 of their first 41 contests. They have leveled off since then (110+ points in four of last 23 games; 104.7 O-Rating since January 17, 22nd in NBA), and were truly laid low when Lowry exited to repair an aggravatingly painful wrist on his shooting hand. Toronto was already a low-volume passing team before Lowry’s post-All-Star-Game surgery (15.0 assist% pre-Jan. 17, 29th in NBA), but their ballhandlers have been going it alone all the more (NBA-low 13.6 assist% since Jan. 17) without his direction on the floor. The Raptors began this month totaling just 11 assists in a home loss to the Wizards, two nights after their 12 assists barely helped them squeak past the Knicks in MSG. Better ballhandling by scoring-minded Cory Joseph, and a team-approach to better ball movement has helped of late. But by pressing a tighter defense and a slower tempo, as regulated by coach Dwane Casey, the Raps are more likely to pull out games with double-digit, instead of triple-digit, tallies. Their 94-87 win in New Orleans on Wednesday was greatly enhanced once the malleable Pelican Anthony Davis left the game with a first-half wrist injury. Toronto’s comeback from a ten-point deficit against the Pellies added to their NBA-high 17 double-digit comeback wins this season. Lowry is certain to return in time for the postseason, but the Raptors certainly planned on opening the first round at the Air Canada Centre. They are desperate to avoid giving away homecourt advantage, especially versus teams like the frenetic Hawks, who are just as likely to pull off fluky wins versus good teams as they are getting blown out by mediocre ones. In the event of a two-team tie at season’s end, tonight’s winner clinches the head-to-head tiebreaker. Their perimeter defensive woes remain well-documented, but Atlanta, with the help of Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, continues to make things tough on opponents around the rim (57.8 opponent restricted-area FG%, 4th-best in NBA; 38.2 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA). The Hawks' wing defenders will want to compel Raptor ballhandlers, like DeRozan, Joseph, Ibaka and Carroll, to pick up their dribbles outside the paint and settle for long-range two-point shots. They can further neutralize Toronto (80.0 team FT%, 6th in NBA) by keeping them from amassing points off free throws. Toronto will strive to play Atlanta’s bigs with heightened physicality, in hopes of inducing early foul trouble and softening the Hawks’ interior. A shrewder Dennis Schröder (31 points, vs. BKN on Wednesday, 20 consecutive FT makes) should be able to continue carrying the Hawks offense tonight, but his overall effectiveness will depend on how well he sets up his teammates for scores. Schröder must resume connecting with Howard (10-for-13 FGs, 15 rebounds @ TOR on Dec. 16) until Jonas Valanciunas or Lucas Nogueira can figure out a way to stop him. If Dennis strays off-script, coach Mike Budenholzer should again turn first to former Raptor Jose Calderon, who is growing more acclimated with the Hawks’ gameplans. The six-game homestand comes to a close for Atlanta tonight, but Hawks fans have been left with a bad taste in their mouths, following long stretches of poor-quality play. Ahead of a tough two-game road trip that begins tomorrow, the Hawks need to present their best basketball in weeks tonight, if they wish to keep departing Hawks fans from feeling even more crabby about their team’s playoff prospects. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY…” Will the Atlanta Hawks widen the Eastern Conference Crab Barrel? Heading into another tough matchup with the Raptors in Toronto (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot), followed by a Saturday night trip back home to face the Hornets, it’s sure shaping up that way. Our half-baked Hawks found plenty of offense on Tuesday. Problem was, they allowed Orlando (without Nik Vucevic) to get plenty more, in a 131-120 torching that was just the latest in a trend of embarrassing and/or lopsided losses. Orlando came in as the worst offense in the NBA outside of Philly or Dallas (or Atlanta). Guess who currently has the best? Toronto (18-7) is threatening to shatter all-time NBA records for offensive efficiency. At 115.3 points per 100 possessions, that rate would be the highest in recorded league history (since such records were first kept in 1983-84). It’s better than Golden State’s current 113.5 O-Rating, and better than the Showtime Lakers of 1986-87, history’s current season-long leader. In more modern times, only Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry’s Suns of 2009-10 (112.3) came close to what the Dubs and Raps are doing right now. Toronto is accomplishing this with a 2-guard that makes just 28.6% of his threes. They’re led, of course, by DeMar DeRozan (career-high 28.0 PPG; 2.9 more shots per game than last season, in 0.3 fewer minutes). Thanks largely to DeRozan, Toronto’s the only team that averages over one point per possession (1.03) on isolation plays, resulting in scores nearly half (49.6%) the time. Interestingly, the Hawks have a league-high 49.6 eFG% on isos, but as you know, relying just 6.0% of the Budball offense on those plays renders that fact trivial. The Raps are breaking offensive records while averaging just 20.4 APG (26th in NBA). The antithesis of Budball, Dwane Casey’s club knows that their assists come not from passing, but in setting screens that allow Kyle Lowry (last ten games: 23.4 PPG, 56.8 FG%, 59.2 3FG%, 7.3 APG) to improvise. In addition to isos, the Raps (guided by Lowry) lead the NBA with scores on 46.8% of P&R ballhandler plays, their 50.7 eFG% on those plays a league-best, their 0.96 points per possession behind only Portland’s 0.97. The roll man hardly gets touches (28th in play frequency), yet even they feast, the Raptors scoring on an NBA-high 57.7% of roll man plays. Unlike the Hawks, who are constantly a work in progress/regress, there is no round-hole training in store for the Raps’ many square pegs. Casey allows his top talent to control the ball and make the plays they’re most comfortable executing. By doing so, his team becomes the RON RAPRS, by eliminating the TOs (12.3 turnovers per 100 possessions, 2nd-lowest in league to Charlotte’s 12.0). Against the eight teams that turn the ball over the least, the Hawks’ record is 0-5, allowing 126.7 PPG in those last three matchups. Included in that group is the 128-84 pasting endured at the hands of the Raps on this Air Canada Centre floor just two weeks ago, the biggest beatdown Toronto has ever enjoyed against anybody pretending to be an NBA outfit. The Hawks let the bottom fall completely out on December 3rd with a 42-14 Toronto advantage in the final quarter, Atlanta unable to keep the lead from widening even after Casey put four backups and rookie Pascal Siakam on the floor to close things out (our old friend Bebe Nogueira had 9 points and two blocks in the 4th). Toronto players coughed up the ball just 12 times (28 assists; 13-for-24 3FGs), compared to the Hawks’ 18 (21 assists; 7-for-28 3FGs), a modest number for the visitors these days. The Hawks can give themselves half a chance tonight, not just by keeping the turnover margin close, but by keeping Toronto Canada-Dry at the line, where they get 26.1 shots per contest (second in the East only to…? Yep, Charlotte’s 26.5). Atlanta actually did this two weeks ago, “holding” Toronto to a season-low (for both teams) 11 FT attempts, or else that 44-point margin might have gotten even worse. Hawks defenders have to draw lines from the rim out to the three-point break lines, and keep Lowry and DeRozan from getting open or lightly-contested looks from within the “funnel zone.” On-ball defenders need to ICE Toronto’s sideline screens and make their dynamic duo work from the corners and baselines. Dennis Schröder and Thabo Sefolosha should rely on the baseline/endline plus help from the Hawks’ bigs to keep Lowry and DeRozan out of the paint and settling for well-contested shots. Paul Millsap (DNP @ TOR on Dec. 3) allowed Serge Ibaka to have a field day from outside on Tuesday, and must rotate out to the perimeter and contest Patrick Patterson (season-high 17 points vs. ATL on Dec. 3) whenever the Raptor forward is in the game. Atlanta’s wings have to help the bigs clog the middle, and make Toronto’s passes out to corner-oriented shooters like Terrence Ross (44.7 3FG%) and DeMarre Carroll a tougher task. Swapping out the TNT duo (Timmy ‘n Thabo) with the K&K Music Factory (Kyle ‘n Kent) has led to good vibrations at the starts of the first and second halves for Atlanta (last 3 games: starters 5th in O-Rating, 14th in D-Rating). But it’s also led to a lack of explosiveness by the reserves (last 3 games: bench 12th in O-Rating, 28th in D-Rating). There’s no help coming for the M&Ms (Moose and Malcolm), who have melted after energetic starts to the season, even before losing the offense/defense contributions of Hardaway and Sefolosha. Better coaching effort is needed for Mike Muscala (plus/minus: +4.3 first 11 games, -7.2 last 14 games, no “positives” last 9 games) and Malcolm Delaney (+8.5 first ten games, -8.0 last ten games with one “positive”) to better understand their defensive roles. The reserves also must stop getting caught out of position when transitioning to D, or else they’ll continue to get blitzed by benches like Toronto, whose offensive efficiency (117.7 O-Rating and +15.1 net rating, best in NBA) is even better than the starters (113.7, 3rd in NBA). When bench players like Orlando’s Elfrid Payton (career-highs of 26 points AND 14 assists, +47 on/off vs. ATL) and Jeff Green (+55 on/off vs. ATL) are getting carte blanche shots, someone is not doing their homework. Ross (6-for-8 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 3) has decided to use breakaway dunks to advertise his candidacy for All-Star Saturday Night, and Atlanta needs to keep him off SportsCenter/SportsCentre tonight. Mike Budenholzer might help the struggling bench out by allowing a third “T” (rookie Taurean Prince) to share some of Kyle Korver’s and Kent Bazemore’s duties. Prince has been relegated to spot duty (less than 2 minutes) in the past two games. Despite some struggles in the past couple weeks, including his last visit to Toronto, expanded minutes for Taurean could help Atlanta better contest opponent shots. If Muscala struggles to make a positive defensive impact from the jump, Coach Bud should not hesitate to turn to a third “K” (ex-Raptor Kris Humphries), if only in search of an immediate spark until the Hawks finish benefitting from the insurance collection on the fourth “T” (Tiago Splitter). Thanks to a conference full of underwhelming teams, the off-days (five in the past six) have helped the Hawks (12-13) more than anything they’ve done on the floor. As frustrating as Atlanta’s season has been over the past month, you look up in the standings, and there is Charlotte, the East’s third-seed of the moment, just 1.5 games ahead of them. It’s almost a mirage! Taking each game seriously, and one at a time, and pulling off at least two out of their next three, might be just enough for the Hawks and Hornets (14-12) to trade places in the standings. Continuing to perform with predictable unpredictability, though, would have more and more Hawks fans staring in the other direction. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker was excused from tonight’s game in Boston for personal reasons, and will be ready to go on Saturday night in Atlanta. A two-game weekend losing streak prior to a trip to OKC would allow the Hawks to build a bridge for fellow division foes Washington (1.5 GB) and Orlando (2.0 GB) back into playoff contention. The Hawks claim there’s still plenty of camaraderie in the locker room, but letting the Wizards and Magic up for air is not the kind of bridge-building anyone has in mind. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “IT’S A RAP!” My whiny groveling about the unfairness of the Atlanta Hawks’ recent schedule is sure to come to an end soon. But not today! Atlanta returned home after a five-game-in-eight-days road swing, enjoyed one day “off”, then got pummeled by the Pistons last night, keeping their toothbrushes packed for a red-eye to Toronto in advance of today’s game against the Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Sportsnet ONE up yonder). They got tenderized at home by the Pelicans one night before starting that wretched road trip, too. Toronto, meanwhile, has hardly had to move a muscle since returning from Milwaukee on Black Friday. They got two days off before playing the Sixers, a day off before facing the kneecapped Grizzlies, and one more free day ahead of back-to-back games featuring the visiting Lakers and Hawks. Atlanta is the third contest of a six-game homestand in T-Dot. LeBron’s slip-sliding Cavaliers arrive two days from now, and the nice-try T-Wolves three days after that. A 1-4 dip turned around to a 5-0 surge for the Raptors (13-6). But fortuitous scheduling has just a little bit to do with that. More impactful has been an offense, led by scoring ace DeMar DeRozan (career-bests of 28.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.3 APG), that has set a flamethrower to the nets. How nice would it be to be ranked fourth in the league for 2FG%, third in the league for 3FG%, and second for FT%? On top of that, how nice it is to rarely turn the ball over (12.2 TOs per game, 2nd-lowest in NBA), the third-best team at taking care of the rock when adjusting for pace? The Raps have the second-best O-Rating in the NBA (113.0, a shade behind Golden State), an efficiency affording Dwane Casey, a typically defensive-minded coach, quite a few luxuries. For perhaps the first time, DeRozan has established himself as the clear 1-A superstar on the team, allowing point guard Kyle Lowry (20.6 PPG, 41.4 3FG%, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG) even more room to roam than in past seasons. With Lowry and Toronto-born backup Cory Joseph running the show, there’s no urgency for second-year guard Delon Wright to return from offseason shoulder surgery. Their biggest free agent signing, Jared Sullinger, also needs not rush to come back. Toronto has more than gotten by with rookie first-rounder Pascal Siakam in the starting power forward spot, and that should continue today as All-Star Paul Millsap (hip) recuperates back in Atlanta. Seventh-year vet Patrick Patterson (35.9 FG%) has had a horrendous start to the season offensively, but he has been fine with coming off the bench behind Siakam and generally staying the heck out of the way. Casey doesn’t have to overwork center Jonas Valanciunas (career-high 13.2 PPG and 9.6 RPG), and rookie Jakob Poeltl barely has to leave his seat. That’s because Casey’s finally making judicious use out of former Hawks project Bebe Nogueira (69.2 FG%; 1.8 BPG in just 18.5 minutes/game). Perhaps most importantly to Casey, he can choose which night of back-to-backs he can rest DeMarre Carroll, the Junk Yard Dog looking more like a Westminster finalist (15.3 PPG, 59.0 FG%, 47.8 3FG%, 1.3 SPG and 1.3 BPG in his last 4 games) in recent days since his last respite. How do the Raptors decide which game to play Carroll, like when choosing between the Lakers and the Hawks? “I think it’s more how we’re going to guard, the best guy on the team, whoever the best player is,” Carroll suggested recently to The Athletic. “If we’re playing a team that’s a (more balanced) team, I’m more prone to sit out that game rather than if we’re playing a Kevin Durant or a LeBron or Paul George. I think that’s the biggest factor, I feel.” Well congratulations, Kent Bazemore, you’re considered higher up on the best-player rung than Luol Deng. Carroll was DNP’d in last night’s game against the Lakers, and Toronto didn’t need his help to drain the Lake Show with a resounding 113-80 win. Playoff hero Norman Powell had been used sparingly, but logged a season-high 32 minutes and contributed 16 points in Carroll’s absence. Now JYD ver. 2.0 will get a chance to sink his teeth into the Hawks. His 3.8 career PPG and 2.2 RPG against Atlanta (nine games, just two starts) are his lowest marks versus any team. Casey may disagree with Carroll’s assessment, or the notion that Carroll would like to get a healthy go at his previous NBA team (“I don’t care what the player wants to do. It is what is best for the Toronto Raptors to win.”), but DMC is accurate on one aspect. We’re certainly a less “balanced” team than the Lakers right now, in more ways than one. The Hawks’ offense continues rocketing toward the NBA basement, most recently in last night’s 121-85 abomination at the Lowlight Factory. Best demonstrated during the 2016 Playoffs versus Kevin Love and the Cavs, the Hawks have shown that their confidence and composure fall completely through the floor whenever they struggle to get former sharpshooter Kyle Korver (2-for-8 FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs) going while their opponents have no problems having a field day from the perimeter. Terrence Ross (42.6 3FG%) will try to help Lowry and Carroll go bombs away against the Hawks again, one night after Detroit posted a demoralizing franchise-record 17 treys (58.6 team 3FG%) on Atlanta, the Pistons’ opponents (6-for-24 3FGs) unable to provide much of a response. Last night’s game (re-)confirmed that things are likely to get worse for the Hawks (10-10) before they get better. But one sliver of good news for the Hawks is they’ve played well on the back end of back-to-backs this season, posting a 4-1 record (wins over HOU, CHI, MIL, at IND, loss at GSW) while outscoring opponents 106.0-98.8. That last home drubbing by New Orleans was followed by an 11-point road victory in Indiana. So it’s reasonable to expect, even while a little shorthanded, that the Hawks will cobble together a more competitive effort from the jump in Toronto. Without Millsap around, it’s essential for Dwight Howard to have much more than a casual observer role, as was the case yesterday (1-for-4 FGs, 6 rebounds, 5 personal fouls) against Andre Drummond and Detroit. Howard (1.1 APG and 6.0 Assist%, lowest since his rookie season 12 years ago) must be more active than sitting around the basket waiting for lobs and putbacks. Getting Dwight more touches and relying upon him to kick the ball back out of the paint when double-teamed should begin to thaw the Atlanta offense, force DeRozan and Lowry to expend more energy than they’d like on defense, and allow the Hawks to stay in contention for much more than one quarter tonight. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “WE WILL… WE WILL… ROCK YOU!” As a young Phillies fan, my first real baseball season of conscience was in 1983. Despite a mid-season coaching change, Philadelphia got their bleep together, won 90 games, and claimed the National League East pennant. One problem though. Dale Murphy’s Bravos fell short of a repeat division crown out West, probably thanks to the Dodgers winning 11 of 12 games during the regular season against the Phillies. 11 to 1! How in the world would Philly have a chance in the NLCS, after being dominated by L.A. all year long? Well, a homer from Sarge Matthews here, a few Ks from Steve Carlton there, bada-boom, bada-bing, and the Phils found themselves back in the Fall Classic. In a head-to-head series, bada-boom, bada-bing is all it takes sometimes to turn the tables. I’m reminded of those Phightin’ Phils as the sun sets on the Atlanta Hawks’ regular season. Winning three straight last season against Cleveland, while shooting a scintillating 55 percent from the field, had no bearing whatsoever on the confidence the Cavaliers exuded rolling into Atlanta for the conference finals. By the same token, the Hawks need not be cowed by tonight’s visitors to the Highlight Factory, the Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, TSN), even though Dwane Casey’s club has bested Mike Budenholzer’s in eight of their last ten meetings, including four straight. Whether or not the Raps extend that streak to five shouldn’t matter one bit to the Hawks if these teams are fortunate enough to meet in a later round, which would be a first for Toronto since 2001. Confidence-building is fine and all, but there is much more to play for at this stage of the season, for both teams. After sitting LeBron and falling in Indiana last night, Cleveland still isn’t done sewing up pole position in the East. The Raptors (52-25) can move within 2.5 games behind the Cavs with four games left to play if they prevail tonight. After hosting those Pacers tomorrow, their final three come against the Knicks, Sixers, and Nets. So a sweep of likely playoff foes on back-to-back nights would put a lot of pressure on LeBron and Company to pull through. One slip, and any dreams of hosting Game 1 of the ECFs would be kaput. GM Masai Ujiri has no plans to type up War and Peace-style farewell manifestos anytime soon. But a third consecutive first-round postseason loss could imperil his status going forward, along with that of Casey. Toronto has been known to can people (looking at you, Butch Carter and Sam Mitchell) for far less significant shortcomings. Unlike the Raps’ previous GM, Ujiri doesn’t have a daddy to hook up a new cushy NBA gig for him. He and Casey recognize that drawing an 8-seed that probably just backed their way into the postseason could lessen the likelihood of disaster striking. As for the Hawks (46-32), they have no looming issues to worry about in the front office, only on the floor and in the standings. Atlanta doesn’t control it’s own destiny for the third and fourth-seeds, as it has to wrest it from Boston (their opponents on Saturday) and Miami. They got no help, Magic Number-wise, last night from their conference colleagues. So when it comes to first-round homecourt advantage, if you need a job to get done, you’re going to have to do it yourself. After allowing Phoenix to wear itself ragged for a full quarter on Tuesday night, the Hawks turned on the defensive jets and cooled off the Suns for a 103-90 victory. A 59-34 second half all but erased memories of the opening quarter, when Devin Booker, Ronnie Price, Archie Goodwin, Mirza Teletovic, and The Gorilla where plopping threes from all over the floor. It’s in those opening quarters where the Hawks look like a team that’s feeling out their opponents, and come away looking like they just bearhugged a cactus. Atlanta’s +11.1 net rating in fourth quarters leads the NBA (by comparison, Toronto’s +6.6 ranks third), and their +5.7 in third quarters leads the East. But that per-possession advantage dwindles to a modest +2.0 in second quarters and +1.0 in first quarters (both ratings 11th in NBA) this season. The Hawks have played close-to-the-vest from the jump against Toronto this season, but they haven’t scored more than 21 first-quarter points in their three meetings, and have been outscored 61-48 in second quarters in their last two meetings. A strong first-half start will be crucial to keeping the Raptors at bay by the close of the contest. Toronto knows how to get it done. On Tuesday night, they held the visiting Hornets to 16 points in the first frame, widened their lead to 14 by halftime, to 19 in the third-quarter, and never relented even against a fourth-quarter rally from Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker to salt the Raptor lead down to single digits. It was a similar deal last week when Atlanta came to Air Canada Centre. Toronto held the Hawks to 20 points in the first quarter, expanded the lead to 13 by halftime, and pulled ahead by 24 at the outset of the fourth before the Hawks’ bench corps arrived to make the final outcome look respectable. To get the ball rolling offensively, Atlanta needs to spread the Raptor defense out by sending shooters to the corners. Toronto foes shoot an NBA-high 44.9 3FG% from the left corner, 39.4% from the right. Drawing the Raptors’ defensive bigs out of the paint can open up cuts from the perimeter and weakside. The Hawks starters must produce when Jeff Teague serves up the ball, most especially Paul Millsap, who had a whale of a game during the comeback against Phoenix (17 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks) but has been next to invisible offensively against all season (season-low 84 O-Rating vs. TOR; 11.0 PPG, 9-for-23 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs). With Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola piling up points for the Raptors, Sap has to be much more than a rebounding presence tonight. Phoenix isn’t a strong 3-point shooting unit, but Toronto is (36.9 3FG%, 4th in NBA). Kent Bazemore (17 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals vs. PHX) ceded open shots at the outset to Phoenix, to help with the interior rebounding and defense, but adjusted accordingly as the Hawks turned things around. Tonight, his role needs to be more pronounced around the perimeter, helping to thwart dribble penetration from DeMar DeRozan but also helping Kyle Korver keep hands in the face of Terrence Ross and Norman Powell. And there's no telling what our good friend DeMarre Carroll (inactive since Jan. 3; 37.8 3FG%), finally activated for tonight's action, will bring to the table. Millsap must also close out properly on Scola (40.9 3FG%) and Patterson, making boxing out duty for Al Horford and Kris Humphries imperative against a much-improved Jonas Valanciunas (13.7 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) and Bismack Biyombo. Toronto may have more TO’s in their name than they allow in a game. The Hawks thrive on transition points off turnovers, but the Raptors have averaged just 12 TOs in their three contests against Atlanta. The Hawks are a mediocre 10-10 when they compel 12 or fewer turnovers, including the 12 committed by Cleveland in their 110-108 OT win at Philips last Friday. Eight of those ten Hawks victories had opponents shooting below 40 percent from the field. Toronto, by contrast, shot 45.6 percent, including 11-for-23 on threes in the March 30 game. The Dinos also earned more than double Atlanta’s free throws (28 to 13) in their last meeting. The story is always the same defensively. Man defenders have to turn Lowry and DeRozan into volume jumpshooters, and position themselves to force them into either taking inefficient shots, drawing charges or giving up the ball, without committing ticky-tack fouls. Despite a poor shooting night in Toronto on March 30 (4-fpr-19 FGs), Lowry scored 7 of his 17 points at the stripe. It was a similar deal for Lowry back on March 10 (6-for-14 FGs, 6-for-8 FTs) during Toronto’s 104-96 win. And during the Raps’ last visit to ATL, Lowry got to the line 12 times, 11 of his makes contributing to a successful 31-point night. No matter the recent history between these teams, the Hawks know what it takes to top Toronto on any given night. And they understand how valuable a victory could be as they move toward the end of the season. There’s nothing to it, but to do it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. Say, did you know that the “De” in DeMarre stands for “Dónde estás?” Telephone poles throughout Ontario are plastered with “Missing!” posters, fans of the Toronto Raptors pleading for the return of their Junkyard Dawg II. On the verge of the first 50-win season in franchise history, the Raptors hope to hand the Atlanta Hawks not only another L tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, TSN), but also a flashlight, to help them out with the search for DeMarre Carroll. This JYD isn’t just any pooch, mind you. Toronto made him the top priority that the Hawks could not this past summer, a priority that costs them a team-high $14.5 million annual average, over this and the next three seasons. That’s nearly six times as much as Atlanta paid for their defensive stalwart, hustle hound, and postseason savior in 2015, a salary that actually went down a smidgen from 2014. After a modest 23 games, Carroll, who turns 30 this summer, surprised many with the announcement in January that he would be getting his knee scoped, and would miss some time. That’s okay, thought the Raptors’ faithful… so long as he’s back in time for the playoff push. Besides, Toronto was just beginning to make their power moves up the Eastern Conference standings without him, supercharged by the dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and bolstered by a supporting cast of improved players. Even with Junkyard Doggone, the Raps got blown out by top-ranked Cleveland, and then went on a 27-7 tear, including a thrilling home win over the Cavs last month with Lowry dropping a career-high 43 points. How good might they get once DMC gets back? There’s no need to rush things! “I mean, yeah, that’s what it’s all about, having him 100 percent when things matter, especially as we get closer to the playoffs,” DeRozan optimistically told the Toronto Star, after Carroll hobbled through his last game back in January. “Before we know it we’re going to look up and it’s going to be March, April. As long as we get guys 100 percent, that’s all that matters.” Well, after some signals that DMC would be working his way back into the Raptation in March, he has essentially disappeared from sight. Carroll has been Tweeting and making PR appearances (most recently, reported by the Toronto Sun to be hanging around the ATL on personal matters). But he hasn’t spoken to the media about his recuperation status since February. The calendar is turning to April, and now fans are growing as jittery as a Tim Hortons addict. Was there a setback in recovery? How bad is it? This guy was supposed to be their LeBron Impeder. Not Terrence Ross, not DeRozan, not rookie Norman Powell or James Johnson. This guy. Yet, not until this morning did the Raptors express renewed optimism that he’ll be back on the court before the regular season ends. Can Carroll work his way back into the rotation, and be productive, in time? With the investment they’ve made, will it be wise to just shut him down for the season, and simply grin and bear it without him? Those who asserted before the season began that the Hawks would sorely miss the presence of Carroll, especially once their ninth-consecutive playoffs tip off, are correct. What few could possibly have imagined is that the Raptors might miss him even more. Yet now, there’s hardly time to even entertain those thoughts. Elbow pasta, elbow bursitis. It’s always best if you drain them. Lowry has been playing through soreness in his shooting elbow, he says, since mid-January. That was back when he and DeRozan shared Player of the Month honors and the Raps soared, just ahead of the All-Star Game that he and DeRozan played in while his team hosted. Toronto went from being tied with the Hawks at 21-15 when DeMarre exited, both teams looking up at the Bulls in the standings, to joining the Cavs as the class of the East. Then, ten days ago, Lowry’s elbow pain and swelling flared up again after a fall against the Magic. He was rested against Boston and then tried playing through the discomfort, but the results on the scoreboard – a 1-3 record, with the sole win against residual Pelicans – and the box score – Lowry’s 23.9 FG%, 19.2 3FG%, and 54.2 FT% in three of those games – were less than stellar. Immediately after a blowout loss at the Air Canada Centre to the blazing-hot OKC Thunder, a struggling Lowry went to get his elbow drained of fluid. This isn’t just any bony joint, mind you. In Canada, this is The People’s Elbow. No less than a nation full of rabid hoops fans have waited patiently for the breakthrough of a franchise that has been around for 21 seasons and have one, solitary playoff series victory (during Vince Carter’s Chapel Hill graduation year of 2001) to show for it. Lowry’s back problems deep-sixed the Atlantic Division champions’ chances to advance in the 2015 playoffs. One year later, they’re relying on this star point guard’s elbow to make the passes, the steals, the help rebounds, the shots, that could lift this team to the conference finals – and beyond, if they dare. To his credit, Lowry was forthcoming with the postgame media about the status of his sore elbow, and is allaying fears that it might impair his effectiveness going forward, particularly now that it’s drained and has undergone additional treatment since. "It’s definitely something I don't want to play with, and I don't like to play with, but it is what it is," Lowry said to the press after the Thunder game. "It just gets you when you can’t extend your elbow and your arm the complete way. Hopefully we’ve got it taken care of. Hopefully I won't be playing and shooting as bad as I’ve been playing the last three games." Hopefully. He remains likely to play today despite sitting out shootaround this morning. Like the team, Lowry remains furtive about the status of someone who should be a starting forward for Toronto by the time the playoffs get here. When pressed for his estimation of the time Carroll will need before he’s playoff-certified: "I don't know, Dr. Kyle isn't in the office today." Two nights after the Raptors got triple-doubled by the magnificent Russell Westbrook, Jeff Teague’s arrival in town will certainly feel like a vacation for Lowry. But fresh from bewildering a desperate Derrick Rose, Teague (26 points @ CHI; 19 assists, ZERO turnovers in last 2 games) is in no mood to alleviate the Raptors’ woes. No one in Atlanta was shedding a tear during the first few months of the year, when Jeff’s lower leg was forming his first-name initial repeatedly on the floor. There was little regard to his persistent issues with lateral movement and finishing in the paint (44.3 2FG%, lowest since his rookie year), especially with a wunderkind in Dennis Schröder waiting-in-the-wings to close games out. There certainly was no mercy from Lowry when he plopped 22 of Toronto’s 39 fourth-quarter points in Atlanta back on December 2, his Raptors storming ahead with the lead while Teague Time consisted of exasperated 2-for-8 FG shooting. After sitting out a few games in November, through January Teague was shooting 41.7 FG% (43.1 2FG%) and averaging 13.7 PPG and 5.1 APG. Since February, he’s upped those values to 44.5 FG% (46.6 2FG%), 16.3 PPG and 6.8 APG. Jeff has also sunk his last 16 free throws, including four in the final 25 seconds to help his Hawks finally put the Bulls to bed. Teague did compile 17 assists and just a pair of turnovers in two losses to Toronto, but is out to make amends after shooting just 9-for-31 in those games. Actually, the whole Hawks team is out to bounce back after sinking just 5 of 22 three-pointers (0-for-8 in the second half) in Chicago. That’s three nights after drawing more iron than you’d find in a Geritol bottle (5-for-32 3FGs, 2-for-24 in final three quarters) back home against the Bucks, and two nights after making just a third of their treys (5-for-15 3FGs) as the Pistons tried to claw their way back into the game. The point guards’ effectiveness in seizing control of the game depends a lot on their teammates’ ability to bury perimeter shots and open up the floor. The Hawks continue to manufacture 16.1 wide-open three point shots per game (17.0 in March), 3.8 more than second-place Golden State, but have made just 34.7% of them (34.9 wide-open 3FG% in March), as none of the next ten most-frequent shooting teams converted at less than a 37.5% clip. Atlanta relies more than most teams on bigs that are just recently expanding their ranges, like Paul Millsap (31.4 wide-open 3FG%) and Al Horford (35.6%; 39.5% in March), the latter being tied with Kent Bazemore (34.1%; 22.9% in March) for the team lead with 2.6 wide-open 3s per game. But that doesn’t excuse snipers like Kyle Korver (36.1 wide-open FG%; 42.9% in March) or Tim Hardaway, Jr. (38.6%; 40.0% in March) from the need to continue getting their weight up. Hardaway has worked hard to carve a steady role in the Hawks rotation, but suffers from the dilemma suffered by shooting guards and swingmen of the past, like Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow. Specifically, if your shots aren’t falling, what ELSE are you doing out there? In the past three games, Junior (1-for-11 on 3FGs, 3-for-10 on 2FGs) has contributed one defensive rebound, 5 assists, four points-in-the-paint, three free throw points, and one steal, total. The Hawks need Hardaway to make a bigger imprint on both ends of the floor, especially to exploit their depth advantages on most nights. It’s well-known that I’m wary of making too much about Hawk opponents’ injuries, so I’ll quickly add that Toronto has upgraded Terrence Ross to probable, after their fourth-leading scorer missed the past three games with a sore thumb. Raptors coach Dwane Casey has been turning instead to Powell, and the rookie guard is certainly plugging the gaps. He’s made 47.4% of his 3-point attempts in the past three games (15.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and brings much more energy on the defensive end than Ross (6.6 TO%, 3rd-best in NBA), who is much improved as an on-ball defender in his own right. Still, the Hawks must find advantages among their reserves, and that begins in the backcourt. Dennis Schröder should have little problem outperforming Toronto’s Cory Joseph (32.5 FG%, 21.7 3FG%, 6.5 PPG, 2.7 APG this month), who has been struggling just as he’ll be needed to step things up while Lowry rehabs. Schröder and Hawks wing Thabo Sefolosha have to find ways to disrupt one of the NBA’s stingiest offenses in Toronto (NBA-low 6.5 opponent SPG; 14.3 opponent PPG off TOs, 3rd-lowest in NBA). If Lowry remains ineffective as a shooter, DeRozan is likely to put more of the offense on his shoulders. Sefolosha (probable, despite continued stiffness in his ankle) will be needed to help force Toronto’s leading scorer into inefficient shots, without bailout fouls (…Paul!) As was the case in Toronto’s March 10 victory over the Hawks (DeRozan 30 points, 11-for-20 FGs, 7-for-9 FTs), the Raptors are 7-3 when DeRozan gets more points than shot attempts taken (field goals plus free throws; 13-for-23 3FGs in those games). But they’re a pedestrian 8-7 when he gets at least 25% more attempts than points scored (3-for-26 on 3FGs in those games). They’re also 9-1 when he’s granted 14 or more free throw attempts, 10-1 when he makes more than ten of them. Over the course of a long career, former Raptor Kris Humphries’ 7.2 RPG against Toronto is his highest mark against any NBA team, his 8.1 PPG the best against any Eastern Conference foe. While undoubtedly much of that production came against guys named Bargnani and Garbajosa, Humphries will play a role in establishing defensive-rebounding parity for the Hawks’ big men as Toronto rotates Bismack Biyombo, Patrick Patterson and Jason Thompson behind Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas. Hampered by a slow pace of play, opponents average just 31.3 D-Rebs per game against the Raptors, second-lowest in the league. Horford (3-for-5 3FGs, 5-for-9 2FGs @ TOR on Mar. 10) and Millsap must continue to force opposing bigs to play faster, spurred on by aggressive guard play and ball movement. Atlanta’s perimeter shooters have little excuse against a Raptors team that allows opponents to make 37.5% of three-pointers, second-most in the league. Take care of business on the interior, find and convert open shots, and continue making offenses work outside of their comfort zones for whatever points they can get. And by the fourth quarter, the courtside rappers will have their minds set on mixtapes, ill-timed Instagrams, and “Where’s DeMarre?” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Ever since we stole DeMarre, you…” DeMarre Who? That’s not a question the Atlanta Hawks would dare to ask. That’s his current employer talking. The Toronto Raptors, hosting Atanta as the Hawks conclude an eventful road trip tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, TSN2), have more than just skated by without GM Masai Ujiri’s biggest free agent prize. Toronto (42-20) seeks to extend their run to 22-6 since DeMarre Carroll underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in January. They’re 29-11 sans JYD all season. Anthony Who? That’s a more valid question. The only 1st-overall-NBA-draftee who ever scored less than Anthony Bennett did over the course of the Canadian’s abbreviated NBA career (543 career points in 2.5 seasons) was picked by the Hawks. The Milwaukee Hawks, that is. Mark “Don’t Call Me Haywoode” Workman was selected by the Hawks in the 1952 Draft, then sent packing a few games into the season, putting in time with the Warriors and Bullets before calling it a career at 386 points, leaving behind the game for a career as a bowling salesman in Asia. But, I digress. Bennett (29.6 FG%) never could turn a corner, and was cut loose by his hometown team, making room for former Golden Stater Jason Thompson. The Raptors are doing quite fine without his contributions, too. How are the Raptors pulling away from the Eastern Conference pack? The secret lies at the very bottom of the standings, where the Knicks, Nets, and 76ers, all fellow Atlantic Division opponents, are all huddled together. Toronto is 10-1 in the Atlantic, and last lost to a division foe on November 10, a 2-point loss to the Knicks, without Carroll or Terrence Ross. Feasting on the Southeast last season (12-4) was integral to the Hawks’ magical rise to the top of the conference, and Toronto, who has never won 50 games in their two-decade history, is following that same recipe. While Atlanta was doing quite well to start their 2014-15 campaign, it wasn’t really until last January in Toronto, when Jeff Teague expertly handcuffed Kyle Lowry, and the very next night when the Hawks befuddled the Bulls at the United Center, that the NBA at-large pulled up a chair and began to pay attention. After solid contributions in both L.A. and Utah, Teague (last 2 games: 23.0 PPG, 51.5 FG%, 60.0 3FG%) is out to remind the Raptors they’re not the only team currently thriving without DMC around. The 2015 Hawks got their 42nd victory in February by toppling the Warriors, and was sitting at 50-13 at this same time last year, yet just about everyone was pumping the brakes on NBA Finals aspirations. Not so up here in T-Dot in 2016. To fend off the skeptics, it always helps to have a hip, social-media-relevant, globally-admired ambassador perched in the front row. Besides a Drizzle or two, it also helps to have consistent play from an All-Star-caliber point guard, something that’s been Lowry’s issue for two half-baked seasons, before this one. Lowry was unearthed after nearly getting traded to the Knicks in 2013, averaging 20.4 PPG after the 2014 All-Star Break as the Raptors came alive. After making his first ASG trip last year, Lowry struggled with injuries and shooting (37.3 post-Break FG%, assists down from 7.2 to 5.4 APG). He wasn’t much more than a bystander as Paul Pierce’s Wizards swept Toronto in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs, their second-straight first-round exit. With all of Toronto’s sports attention affixed to him -- it’s not like the Leafs are doing anything -- Lowry has no appetite for another letdown. Since serving as the host for his second ASG, the Raptors point guard is averaging 25.7 PPG and 7.8 APG, both 2nd in the East, hitting 43.1 percent of his threes along the way to 54.7 percent from the floor. He dropped 43 on LeBron and the Cavs on this floor two weeks ago, including the clinching jumper with four seconds to go. And he’s also tied with Chris Paul atop the NBA with 2.2 steals per game this season. We haven’t even mentioned Toronto’s leading scorer yet. Lowry shared his Player of the Month honor for January with his fellow All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, the shooting guard who’s enjoying career-highs of 23.5 PPG, 84.5 FT% and an almost-respectable 33.3 3FG%. Of course, Toronto’s double-barreled offensive attack doesn’t work by way of DeRozan jacking lots of long-range jumpshots. 31% of DeRozan’s points come from trips to the free throw line. In the NBA East, that’s a higher proportion than anyone (min. 50 games played) aside from his teammate, center Bismack Biyombo (31.7% of points from FTs). Key to the Hawks, or anyone, stifling the Raptors offense (107.1 points per 100 possessions, a shade behind Cleveland atop the East, NBA-high 114.0 post-Break) is disallowing DeRozan and Lowry (83.6 FT%) from benefiting from referee charity. Any Toronto possession that doesn’t end in: (1) free throws from that duo; (2) uncontested perimeter jumpers from Lowry, Ross, and Patterson; or (3) easy putbacks for Jonas Valanciunas and Biyombo, is a good possession from Atlanta’s standpoint. Teague, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore will have their hands full trying to coax Lowry and DeRozan into settling for long, inefficient jumpshots without fouling them in the process. Neither team shot the ball well back when the Raps visited Philips Arena on December 2. But Lowry was able to carry Toronto to a 96-86 victory not just from 7-for-10 shooting inside the arc (6-for-7 FGs at the rim, five in the final nine minutes) but from 11-for-12 free throw shooting. Toronto was down nine at the start of the fourth quarter but went on a 39-20 blitz behind Lowry to win going away. Toronto’s only other double-digit-average scorer, Valanciunas was out of that December game. But the Dinos got plenty of help from Biyombo (5 O-Rebs) and our old friend Bebe Nogueira (career-high 7 boards), who can probably spell Mississauga by now with so many D-League trips. The old boxout rules apply for Al Horford, Paul Millsap and former Raptor Kris Humphries. Daddy-to-be Mike Scott took an early flight back to the ATL. Valanciunas (career-highs 12.7 PPG, 3.2 O-Rebs per game) is having his best offensive season, but he becomes a liability at the other end, such that it’s usually Biyombo helping the Raptors close things out. It’s a good matchup for Al Horford, who hasn’t had to do too much heavy lifting offensively, to get the Hawks going early. Tossing out the Flakers game, in 3 of Atlanta’s last 4 contests, they’ve been outscored by an average of 32.0 to 22.3 in the opening quarter. Ujiri previously pilfered the Hawks roster for Lou Williams, who rewarded him with a Sixth Man of the Year performance in 2015. But after enduring last year’s playoff flop, Ujiri brought in Biyombo and Carroll to allow Dwane Casey’s club to finally get serious about defense. At least until Carroll returns, defense is the one area where the Raptors (Lowry’s thefts aside) haven’t been up to snuff. Brook Lopez wore out Valanciunas and company with 35 points on Tuesday night, as it took Toronto until mid-way through the third quarter to finally get serious about cutting down the Nets. In the prior two games of this seven-game home stand, they allowed over 110 points in regulation to the Rockets and Blazers. As long as the offense is clicking, the Raptors know they don’t really need Carroll (who may return in a week or so) until it’s time to face-guard LeBron this spring. But they also want to lock down the best seed they can, and it won’t happen giving up so many buckets at the other end. Since the All-Star Break, the Raps’ D-Rating of 110.4 opponent points per-100 ranks 24th and wing players have made them pay in the 3-point corners (league-worst 53.1 opponent 3FG% in left corner, 46.9% from the right). When DeRozan and Ross are caught slipping, Korver and Bazemore have to get in position for shots and make them pay. At the start of this road trip, you read here that at least since the NBA Playoffs went 16 teams deep 32 years ago, no Eastern Conference squad ever missed the playoffs with a winning road record. On top of that, just four teams (Pacers ’97, Wizards ’98, heat ’02, Knicks ‘14) have missed the playoffs in the East with an away-game record of 18-23, the best mark among teams on the outside sitting in. Before heading home for a tough weekend doubleheader, Atlanta (17-16 on road) will aim to tie Cleveland and Toronto in the East with their 18th road victory tonight. They’ll also return to the Air Canada Centre to close out a busy month. No matter the eventual seeding, the Hawks’ postseason outlook will look brighter the more frequently they can pull off impressive wins away from home. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “True to True North!” Welcome back to the ATL, DeMarre Carroll! We miss you** so much! **Okay, well, here's a qualifier. By “you,” I’m suggesting the Atlanta Hawks and its legions of fans genuinely miss the gritty defensive wizard who shot 49% on field goals while averaging 13-and-5, all for the low-low (and declining) price of $2.4 million “you”. The gritty defensive wizard “you” that averages 13-and-5 in four extra minutes, and shoots 40% from the floor, while earning $13.5 million a year (and rising) for tonight’s visitors, the Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South)? Meh, not quite so much. But we’re awfully glad to see you’re alive and doing well! The extent to which the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks “miss” the 2014-15 DeMarre Carroll is a pointless exercise best suited for Thursday Night punditry killing the time in between cellphone, Viagra and Xbox ads. Now, there’s no need for Masai Ujiri to start cussing us out for stating the obvious. Besides, what the heck else was the Raptors GM supposed to do? In the ensuing summer after his two-time Atlantic Division champions get bounced in the opening round by Paul Pierce – again – he’s going to sell his ravenous fanbase on who, as his big-ticket free agent addition? Luis Scola? Cory Joseph? Bismack Biyombo? Who else could he go after that aspires to become Kyle Korver’s Brother from Another Mother while applying lockdown defense on three, if not four, opposing player positions? Nobody on his current roster was going to do those things. Certainly not leading-scorer and subpar-defender DeMar DeRozan (21.2 PPG; 22.2 3FG%). Surely not Terrence Ross (33.8 FG%), who gets so much blame heaped upon him that fans have taken to calling him “AlbaTRoss”. Probably not Patrick Patterson (37.5 FG%). And clearly, not James Johnson, last summer’s Junk Yard Dawg-Lite, who has fallen so far out of coach Dwane Casey’s rotation that he spent his Thanksgiving Day tweeting how unthankful he is about his playing time. Why go after DeMarre Carroll-Lite when DeMarre Carroll is still out there? As far as Ujiri knew at the time, Paul Millsap was on the verge of taking his talents to the Magic Kingdom. That would either free up Atlanta to re-sign what was supposed to be his big prize, the player Casey would later call a “perfect fit” for the Raptors’ defensively deficient core, or would compel the Hawks to eat into the money the Hawks planned to offer DMC to instead meet Millsap’s demand. Bringing Casey with him down to Buckhead, the mission was clear: this was not going to be a negotiation. This was a beg. Don’t let Carroll even think about returning Detroit’s call, or Phoenix’s, or Atlanta’s. This had to be a done deal. They had to make the Birmingham native feel Toronto was going to feel just like home, that his addition would make the monumental difference between first-round exits and NBA Finals contenders. By almost all accounts, Toronto fans are pleased as punch about the acquisition. So what if DMC’s shot accuracy is down? It’s not that much worse than the two stars on the team, Kyle Lowry (41.9 FG%) and DeRozan (42.1 FG%). He’s not there for offense, anyway. Neither is Biyombo (27.3 D-Reb%, 10th in NBA), whose rim protection, together with Carroll’s addition and Lowry’s renewed attention to defensive detail (3.8 steals per 100 opponent possessions, 2nd in NBA), has propelled Toronto back among the league’s top-ten defenses (99.5 opponent points per 100 possessions, 9th-best in NBA) after dropping to 23rd in D-Rating last season. Just about every Eastern Conference team has gone through some measure of tribulation in this early stage of the season. Atlanta (12-8) has been inconsistent and disappointing lately, but lifted sprits with a big home win over Oklahoma City on Monday. Toronto (11-7) was rolling with consecutive wins over the Clippers, Cleveland and arch-nemesis Washington (the latter, a low-scoring affair, won on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Cory Joseph, off a drive-and-dish by DeRozan) before falling flat at home to Phoenix on Sunday. They’ve had a couple days to collaborate with Carroll on how to gameplan for tonight’s game at the Highlight Factory. Carroll had one of his better all-around games versus the Suns (20 points, 8-for-13 FGs, 7 rebounds and 2 steals). But Toronto struggled to shoo Eric Bledsoe (9-for-11 FTs) off the free throw line or stretch forwards Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer (combined 8-for-11 3FGs) off the perimeter. While Carroll attends to long-range threat Kyle Korver (43.2 FG%), the guys who fill in Carroll’s spot (as best he can) for the Hawks, Kent Bazemore (41.2 FG%) and starter Thabo Sefolosha (40.7 3FG%), should find open shots from the corner. As Carroll shifts to help Scola with Millsap (career-high 18.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 3.6 APG), the Hawks’ swingmen should have little trouble getting open against either of DeRozan or Ross. Al Horford (21 points and 11 rebounds vs. OKC), your mission, should you choose to accept it, is again to attack the interior, as Toronto’s depth is shallow without starting center Jonas Valanciunas (fractured hand, out for five more weeks). Former Hawk developmental project Lucas Nogueira has 34 more minutes of NBA action than you do. Any effort by Horford and point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder to get Biyombo into foul trouble would be advantageous in the long run. Thanks largely to Carroll, Biyombo and an improved Valanciunas, Raptor opponents have only averaged 38.2 PPG in-the-paint. With a bevy of scattershot shooters, Toronto will hope Atlanta doesn’t bring their A-game and allow the Raptors to feed off of second chance points. Tiago Splitter remains out of action, so backups Mike Muscala and Mike Scott must continue to join Atlanta’s wings to help secure defensive boards. They’ll find ample shot opportunities on the offensive end as well, especially if the Hawks can push the tempo on the Raptors. Teague (51.1 FG%, 44.4 3FG% vs. TOR last season) will face more defensive resistance from Lowry and the Raptors compared to last season, so his decision-making with the ball must be better than it was in stretches against the Thunder (5 assists, 6 turnovers). Teague Time needs to be spread out for the balance of the game, so a barrage of layups won’t be needed to save the day in the closing minutes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. He's coming home! ~lw3
  16. At this point, Ujiri needs to go full Tajiri, and just spew green mist on people. ~lw3
  17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D1tEnNWXkU ~lw3
  18. Bebe's health status continues to go to and 'Fro. http://www.thescore.com/nba/news/600809 ~lw3
  19. "Started from the bottom, now we get fined." http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/11338909/toronto-raptors-fined-25000-drake-concert-comments ~lw3
  20. (loose Google translation from Encestado) http://encestando.es/toronto-raptors-comunica-al-fin-al-estudiantes-que-se-llevan-a-nogueira-y-pagara-su-clausula-de-600-000-euros/ The Estudiantes club will use the buyout money to help pay its debts, if I'm reading the story right. ~lw3
  21. Royally Mounted! Who does it like THIS, though? http://sports.yahoo.com/news/raptors-c-valanciunas-charged-drunk-000040704--nba.html They don't play around up there, do they? ~lw3
  22. Off to Texas you go... ~lw3
  23. http://sports.yahoo.com/news/sources-raptors-kings-rudy-gay-trade-000950446-nba.html The 4 position? That's a stretch. ~lw3