After a home win against a rebuilding Celtics squad that resembled exactly what most expect the first game of the year to look like – a strange hybrid between the pre and regular seasons – our undefeated Raptors (1-0) head out on the road for the first time this year against the new/old look Atlanta Hawks (0-1). The Hawks’ biggest offseason storyline was the loss of Josh Smith and subsequent signing of Paul Millsap, a more traditional big man in game but not in stature, yet someone regarded as similarly effective from a statistics point of view (and far more affordable). Even though this is just the second game of the year for both squads, both of these teams have designs on one of the lower playoff seeds in the East, so this game could go a long way in starting to establish the pecking order in the lower-middle subset of the conference (or, as I like to call it, “no-man’s land”).

The Hawks will be an interesting team to watch this season for all the reasons the Raptors are – they have a few young players with serious potential (Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder), an established star (but not a game changer) in Al Horford, and a litany of pieces that could be moved this season if the team decides to tank. Basically, they could go either way, and early returns will likely determine the course of action for the rest of the season. That said, the Hawks are no stranger to first-round playoff exits, and nobody would be surprised if the front office decided to stay the course for another year, biding their time for a major free-agent splash (good luck).

This is the Hawks’ home opener, though, and I expect no shortage of motivation when the Raps roll into town. It’s a bit too early in the season for a “tale of the tape,”  but I just wanted to point out that at this point in the season, the Raptors are 2nd in the league in defensive efficiency. As Blake so eloquently put it on Wednesday: #ringz.

Let’s look at how the positions break down:

Positional Breakdown
Point Guards: Kyle Lowry, D.J. Augustin, Dwulyan Buyckone, Kyle Lowry’s splint v. Jeff Teague, Shelvin Mack, and Dennis Schroder
Normally, the Lowry/Teague matchup at the point would be the focal point of this matchup for me, but with Kyle Lowry’s shooting noticeably affected by his splint, the advantage goes to the Hawks. Teague is a dynamic point guard who is tough for opposing players to handle on their best nights, and is extremely effective in setting up the Atlanta offense by constantly barreling into the lane. I expect the Raps’ pick and roll D will be tested tonight in a way that it wasn’t against the Avery Bradley-led Celtics. Rookie Dennis Schroder will be an interesting/intriguing player to watch – apparently he’s got a little Rajon Rondo to his game, and the Raps were said to have targeted him in the draft last summer.

Wings: Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Terrence Ross, and Steve Novak v. DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, and Cartier Martin
Huge Advantage: 
First thought: seriously, those are the Hawks’ wing options? Second thought: well, those are all pretty good three point shooters – the Raptors had better be careful with their defensive rotations and game plan and not get over-agressive helping on Teague/the Atlanta bigs. Third thought: this team is coached by Dwane Casey. Fourth thought: this matchup might be tighter than I originally figured.

Seriously, though, the Hawks’ wing rotation are all complementary pieces meant to knock down open shots and not create too much of the own offense – Vince Carter had a huge night against them on Wednesday, and I expect both Rudy and DeMar to do the same. It would be good to see Terrence Ross get some extended run against what appears to be a weak Hawks rotation, but I’m not holding my breath.

Bigs: Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough and Aaron Gray v. Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, Pero Antic, and Mike Scott
Advantage: Wash

Offensively, this matchup favours the Hawks, who feature three effective, versatile scorers in Horford, Millsap, and Brand. However, all three players are undersized for their position, which should give Jonas and Amir an advantage on the low block. I’d like to see the Raps try and make Jonas the focal point of the offense in this game – on paper, he should have an easy time scoring against the Hawks’ smaller frontline. However, Al Horford is no stranger to the “next great center” label, and I’d imagine playing against JV will be a bit of a statement game for him. I’d also love to see the Raps play some sets tonight with Rudy Gay at the 4 – if he can passably handle the 6 foot 8 Millsap on the defensive end, it could be a nightmare for the Hawks when the Raptors have the ball.

The Picks

Vegas: Hawks -5
Garrett: In my mind, the Hawks are in a similar position to the Raptors – a bit more talented at the moment, perhaps, but with less upside as a group. It is their home opener, they should be motivated, and Al Horford has beast mode potential. That said, I’m not going to be the first one to pick against an undefeated season. Total homer pick, but I’m going with the Raptors by 3.  82-0!

  • WJF

    Is it too early in the season to say this is a “must win” game? JK, but getting this win would go a long way in creating a good start to 2013.

    • ibleedpurple

      This is an absolutely must win game. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Raps after this one. They have to come in and take control early and hopefully Casey’s coaching wont hinder them down the stretch. Someone needs to explain to him that your allowed to take timeouts when the opposing side is making a run.

      • robertparrish00

        That is awesome. Makes you wonder why someone doesn’t explain sub patterns and time outs to him. It seems like the most basic part of coaching. I dread the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th quarter.

      • Sammy

        “Someone needs to explain to him that your allowed to take timeouts when the opposing side is making a run.”

        ^ This

        • FLUXLAND

          He’s clearly using the Jax approach – letting them play through it.

      • Adriiian

        We’ve done well in Atlanta the past 2 season if my memory servers me right. We’ve won a few there?

  • djones0845

    That picture is just the greatest. The Hawk is looking at him like “What the hell man, that’s my job.”

  • GKS

    “Dennis Schroder will be an interesting/intriguing player to watch – apparently he’s got a little Rajon Rondo to his game, and the Raps were said to have targeted him in the draft last summer.”
    Yeah let’s target a player with no draft picks

    • 2damkule

      yeah, i know, right? because buying / trading for a pick never happens.

  • Tim W.

    You know things are bad when a team that’s not even playing has the frontcourt advantage. But Washington??

    • mike, prague

      You do know that he means that “It’s a wash” … but I get confused by it all the time too

      • Chicken

        LOL @ Washington

  • WhiteVegas

    Really excited for this game. I have the Hawks as the biggest competition for the 6th seed with the Raptors. Both are interesting teams to follow as they are two of the most likely to make some big trades this year. Both teams have (relatively) new GM’s that are looking to make their mark. In my opinion, two of the more highly talented GM’s in the league (Ferry has gotten a lot better since his Cleveland days).

    Definitely a potential trade partner down the line. For instance, Derozan for Millsap straight up works if we decide to move on from DD. Improves flexibility (2 year contract vs 4 years) and improves our starting PF position (I like Amir but Millsap is better). Could probably get Atlanta to throw in John Jenkins as well, who could backup Ross at the 2 (or battle him for starter). DD’s game would work much better in Atlanta where almost everyone on the team can sink the 3, thereby taking the pressure off him to do so.

    Anyways, excited for this game.

  • Pong

    Teague is definitely an PG in the league. Quick, athletic and relatively durable. Not hating on Lowry, but if only we could swap PGs with Atlanta…

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  • ckh26

    Looking forward to tonights game. A first litmus test on where we stack up against one of the “herd” of Milwaukee, Detroit , Washington, Cleveland and dare i say Philly ?.{massive smirk here} ) that argueably we are going to have to win out against to make the playoffs. Should be fun.

  • Reed

    You Should also Having Coaching as another category cause judging by the season opener its quite an important part.

  • Louvens Remy

    Trade everybody.

    • ckh26

      To who and for what ?

      • Louvens Remy

        Trade Ross for Kent Bazemore and a 2nd rounder. Flip DJ Augustin for Patrick Patterson.

    • One relaxed fella

      Truly relevant reply to a pregame article.

      • Louvens Remy

        Y’all don’t have to be soooooo serious on this site do you?
        I make jokes sometimes too.

  • Nerius

    Can someone wake Casey? Or did he forget the napkin with his plays?