Josh Smith, Amir Johnson

Welcome to Atlanta, Raps Republic, where we don’t play, and J-Smoove block your shot like every day, and Al Horford’s not gangster in any way…

I’d put the Raptors chances tonight at about the size of Jermaine Dupri (that means small…very, awkwardly, creepily small). The Hawks are solid at 25-19 and provide a handful of match-up problems for the Raptors, who are also dealing with wild trade rumors swirling around the team right now (not to mention the continued absence of half of their frontcourt). Fields and Lowry are also questionable at the time of this writing.

In order to help us break the game down, I enlisted the king of NBA photoshops, Bo Churney of Hawks Hoop, the Atlanta Hawks blog here on the True Hoop Network. Bo answered my questions below and has promised to pass along any tidbits from shoot-around today, which we’ll be sure to post on Tumblr/Put-Backs.

Is 25-19 disappointing for the Hawks? I can never tell what the expectations are for this team, especially since they jettisoned Joe Johnson but didn’t seem too upset about it.
I think 25-19 is where most people expected the Hawks to be around this point. They did get off to that hot start, but have since regressed, so I guess you could consider that disappointing. However, competing for the 3-6 seed is exactly where they should be, even without Joe Johnson.

The loss of Sweet Lou Williams sucks from an NBA fan perspective. Does the loss of his scoring punch render the Hawks more or less a first-round playoff exit?
Pretty much. You could easily see how much the Hawks missed him in the Knicks game, as they’re second unit was just absolutely atrocious. Technically, I think they could win a playoff series without him, but the fact that they probably won’t grab home-court advantage in the first round because of his absence is what really hurts the most.

Is Josh Smith out the door by the trade deadline? In the offseason?
I think Josh will be around for the rest of the season. I don’t think GM Danny Ferry is just going to trade him for the sake of “getting something”. The team will likely use Josh as an attraction for Dwight Howard to come here, but otherwise, I think they are completely prepared to let him walk away.

What can the Raptors try to exploit to steal a victory in the Dirty South?
Jeff Teague’s biggest weakness is that he can’t guard a pick-and-roll, which then will force either Horford or Smith to help off of their man (this is how Melo got open for nine threes the other day). Calderon (if he’s still a Raptor by game-time) and Lowry (if he can play) are more that capable of wreaking havoc in the lane, and can starting racking up assists in a hurry. (Lowry had 18 last year against us when he was in Houston) If the Raptors win this game, it is going to be because they successfully ran PnRs the whole game.

Hmmm, the Raptors can leverage an advantage in the pick-and-roll game? Sounds like something they could do, though the threat could be completely taken away if Amir Johnson and Ed Davis get in foul trouble trying to guard Horford and Smith. Ahh, who am I kidding, Aaron Gray, baby!

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 106.6 (10th), Atlanta 104.5 (14th)
D-Rating: Atlanta 103.7 (10th), Toronto 108.9 (27th)
Pace: Atlanta 91.3 (18th), Toronto 90.0 (24th)
Strength: Toronto Ball Control (2nd), Atlanta 3-Point Shooting (3rd, 38.2%)
Weakness: Toronto Fouling (30th), Atlanta Turnovers (28th)

Positional Breakdown
Point Guard – Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry (Q) v. Jeff Teague and Devin Harris
Advantage:
TBD
If Lowry goes, I’d give the edge to the Raptors but if he can’t it obviously swings the other way. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: would you rather have Kyle Lowry or Jeff Teague as your franchise point guard? Teague is averaging roughly 14-2-7 and spaces the floor well enough, but he’s only decent defensively and is only slightly above average in terms of PER. Lowry, on the other hand, is a 14-5-6 in smaller minutes with great-and-bad defense and a monstrous PER. Teague is two years his junior but is also a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning he could be in for a big pay raise. I’d take Lowry myself, but I’d be interested to hear if that’s a consensus or not. Oh, and poor Devin Harris. I thought Atlanta would be a great fit since he looks like Ludacris, but he seems to be well on the down-swing of his career at just 29, providing good defense when engaged but nothing on the offensive end any longer.

Wings – DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields (Q), Terrence Ross and Alan Anderson v. Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and John Jenkins
Advantage:
Toronto
The Hawks are very thin on the wing with Anthony Morrow and Sweet Lou out, which has forced them to use Harris at the two more than is probably ideal. It’s an interesting proposition for the Raptors, who could then play two guards themselves to help space the floor without Calderon giving up too much defensively. Korver is obviously a very dangerous shooter (47% from long range, are you SERIOUS bro?) and it means despite being limited somewhat, you have to keep a man tight on him at all times. Stevenson can stroke it, too, and doesn’t need to be asked twice to shoot, while Jenkins can also hit the triple when he plays. The Raptors have been doing a better job of late limiting three-point attempts, and that will be a key in this one. The Raptors can take an edge at the point but will give up a lot in the paint, so the wings could swing things if the shooters are left open from bad rotations or over-helping.

Bigs – Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy v. Josh Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson
Advantage:
Hawks
Yeah, Smith and Horford. This could get tough. Horford is actually “only” averaging 16 a game, but he adds 10 boards and three assists while doing it all at an efficient clip. He doesn’t shoot free throws particularly well or often, so maybe Amir will be able to handle him without taking a quick seat. Smith is versatile and a big issue, posting 17-8-4-1-2. His shot selection, however, is poor, so throwing a couple of different looks at him and frustrating him with an active defender (Anderson?) could convince him to be a shooter instead of an attacker. He hits under 30% from long range and shoots way too many long twos (sound like anyone you know?). It’s certainly not an easy match-up, but Smith can be game-planned for. Hopefully Casey has the bigs (and Anderson) ready.

The Picks
Vegas: Atlanta -7.5
Hollinger: Atlanta -5.5
Blake: Atlanta by 7.

I just don’t see the team handling Smith and Horford well, plus I’m weary of picking the Raptors with Lowry questionable and all of the trade rumors swirling at present. It seems like this could be a thin and unfocused team tonight, and that won’t play against a team as good as Atlanta.

Perhaps maybe it’s MY focus that’s elsewhere though. With so many conflicting reports about this Rudy Gay situation, my head has been spinning for the past 48 hours. I’m trying to reserved judgment until any details are official but it’s difficult to keep a cool head with competing rumors and obvious leaks. Call me when a deal is done, I guess.

7:30 p.m., TSN2, enjoy.