“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!