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:
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: Raptors
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
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.
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!