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The Atlanta Hawks are proof that making the playoffs doesn’t mean respect around the league. Or even in your own town, apparently. Atlanta is the 9th largest metropolitan area of the United States. It’s a warm weather city and has the 3rd most Fortune 500 companies in the US. And this will be the 6th year in a row the team will make the playoffs.

So why doesn’t anyone care about them?

Even when they were getting to the second round of the playoffs, their attendance was poor. It’s not just their own fans that don’t care about the Hawks. When Joe Johnson was leading the Hawks to 53 wins and the second round, nobody really took them seriously. Multiple second round appearances didn’t attract prime free agents. Pundits never talked about the Hawks as contenders who had a chance to get into the Finals. They saw the team for what it was, a 2nd round-ceiling team with an overpaid star who simply wasn’t good enough to lead his team anywhere, and whose contract, and mere presence, prevented the team from improving.

So last summer Danny Ferry came in and traded Johnson for cents on the dollar in order to get out from under his massive contract.

And now it appears the Hawks will not only beat last year’s win total (albeit in a lockout shortened season), but possibly the win total for the year before. And this after losing their best player for spare parts.

And after strangely deciding NOT to trade Josh Smith before the trade deadline, all but guaranteeing he’ll leave this summer for nothing, the Hawks and Raptors are two teams going in very different directions. The Hawks are slowly breaking apart their team, getting rid of the pieces that don’t work and the cumbersome salaries so they will have the lowest payroll in the league this summer, whereas the Raptors are basically building a new Atlanta Hawks team with Rudy Gay in the role of Joe Johnson and will have the 6th highest payroll this summer, despite not making the playoffs.

Which brings us to tonight’s game.

The Hawks are currently a sixth seed and a win against the Raptors and a loss by Philadelphia could guarantee them a playoff berth. Depending on how they play, the rest of the season, they could move up to the 4th seed, and home court advantage in the first round, or move down to 8th and a meeting with Miami in the first round. Obviously, they still have a lot to play for.

The Raptors have lost four in a row and even if Rudy Gay decides to play (he apparently practiced and will be a gametime decision), it will be a tough matchup for the Raptors, who have already lost against the Hawks in their previous meeting, and have historically not done well against them.

While having Gay back will help, the initial bump he gave the team after the trade has flattened out and the team was struggling even before he went down with his latest injury.

I’m guessing Dwane Casey will continue his frustrating habit of adjusting to his opponents rather than making them adjust to you by going small and bringing Amir Johnson off the bench and have Rudy Gay match up against Josh Smith. Ironic since Gay and Smith are such similar players. They both have the talent to be perennial All Stars, but are way too inconsistent and fall too much in love with their jumper to take full advantage of their potential. Smith, though, is a better passer and defender than Gay.

If Gay is going to become an All Star in the East, Smith is probably going to be his main competition (as long as Smith stays in the East as a free agent), and Smith himself has never made an All Star team.

Lastly, even if you want Colangelo to be fired and believe the Raptors ending the season poorly will help that cause, the team is dangerously close to dropping in the standings, which would mean a better chance of getting a top three pick in the Draft Lottery instead of seeing the pick go to Oklahoma City.

While that might not seem like a bad thing for a team that could use more talent, winning the lottery this year would be similar to winning it in 2006 when there was no consensus top pick and little star power, instead of the next season when they would have had a chance to draft Kevin Durant.

It’s in the team’s best interest to convey the pick to Oklahoma this year, which means the Raptors can drop any more in the standings. So let’s hope for a win.

Since this is my first pre-game writeup, I’ve decided to look at three stats that should have an impact on the game.

1. Three Point Shooting

The Hawks are among the league leaders in three point shooting percentage and Toronto is among the worst. On the other hand, the Hawks are among the worst at defending the three point shot, whereas Toronto is middle of the pack. What Toronto does seem to do well, though, is prevent the opposition from SHOOTING a lot of three pointers, which will be important against the Hawks because they are fourth in the league in three pointers made during the season.

If the Hawks can get a lot of good looks at behind the arc, it could be a long night for the Raptors.

2. Al Horford’s All Star Numbers

Since the All Star Break, Al Horford is averaging 20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, shooting 56% from the field and 70% from the line. Jonas Valanciunas will have his hands full. What Horford doesn’t do much of is get to the line. Over 60% of his shots are jumpshots, which Valanciunas isn’t all that comfortable defending, at this point.

My guess is that Amir will play more minutes and will do a better job of defending Horford’s jumper.

3. Hawks 17-19 on the Road

The Hawks are close to a .500 team on the road, and the Raptors play pretty well against sub-.500 teams.

Raptors Player to Watch:

Kyle Lowry

He hasn’t played all that well of late, but I can see him playing big against the young Jeff Teague.

Hawks Player to Watch:

Josh Smith

No one on the Raptors matches up well against him and he’s on a bit of a tear his last three games.

Prediction:

Hawks by 7