NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks

The Toronto Raptors host the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on TSN2, the team’s final game before a five-day break for NBA All-Star Weekend.

There’s a lot to look forward to this weekend with three Raptors participating in events and a nearly week-long vacation for those that aren’t, but there are 48 minutes to get through still. They’re no more important than any other 48 minutes, but it feels that way given that the Hawks and Raptors are in a battle for the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

The 27-24 Raptors have a one-game edge on the 25-24 Hawks as of this writing (the Hawks will have a game at Chicago between now and posting) and while Toronto seems to be considered a slightly better team, that fact is tenuous at best. The Hawks have survived without Al Horford and could be players at the trade deadline (as buyers or sellers, really), and Wednesday could go some way towards clearing up who the better squad may be (as much as one game can do that, anyway).

[Attend the game: Below-Cost Tickets to Raptors/Hawks available via RR]

To help set the stage, I hooked up with handsome mean-mug expert Robby Kalland, who writes for Hawks.com and Hardwood Paroxysm.

Dwane Casey on the Hawks

On pre-break focus
“It’s huge, the fact that this is a team riding close to us in the standings. They’re playing very well; we have to make sure we take care of business before we go on the break.”

On Paul Millsap and the Hawks 3-point prowess
“He spaces the floor, shoots the three. He’s an example of a guy who’s developed his game, brought something back to the table every year. He’d made some threes in Utah but now he’s a consistent 3-point shooter, made himself an All-Star. He’s self-made. That’s what you respect about Millsap, he’s a guy who’s worked on his game, developed his 3-point shooting, and he’s really giving them a boost. He really stretches out the defense. He and Korver out there and DeMarre Carroll, who’s another self-made 3-point shooter, it really stretches your defense. Our rotations, our closeouts are going to have to be on target, on point, or its gonna be a long night.”

On Kyle Korver’s incredible streak
That’s very difficult, because its not like teams don’t know who you are and aren’t keying in on you, haven’t talked about you….He’s perpetual motion also, he’s a good athlete. It’s not like he’s a standstill guy. Were gonna have to have a lot of energy to chase him around, run with him, move with him. Can’t relax because if you lose sight of him for a second it’s a 3-point shot….He’s like Redick, except he’s maybe four inches taller, so it’s even harder.

Funny DeMar DeRozan moment from Tuesday’s practice

Doug Smith of the Star asked DeRozan if he can relate to Korver’s 3-point streak. “Can I relate to him?” DeRozan responded, obviously amused at the question since Korver has a three in 118 straight games and DeRozan has 114 made threes in his entire career.

I guess the easiest place to start is here: the Raptors and Hawks are battling for title of “third best team in the East,” a lowly but kind of important designation (and sure, a few others loom). Simple question: who takes the third seed?

That’s a tough question because so much hinges on the Hawks’
health. Pero Antic will return after the All-Star break and if he can
step back in to the starters role and produce like he was before the
stress fracture, then the Hawks have a good chance. I really think the
key for both teams’ long term success, and who gets the 3-seed, will
be who gets better point guard play. If Jeff Teague doesn’t get on
track and Kyle Lowry keeps playing well, then I think the Raptors
emerge as the 3. If Teague can get it going again like he was in the
first month or so, I like the Hawks there.

You kind of have a terrific gig from a blogger’s perspective, working FOR the Hawks. What’s that like, and how does it compare to being a team blogger?

Working for the team has been a great experience so far. I think
the biggest advantage for me is the incredible access I’m granted to
players, coaches, and front office personnel that is not as available
for most bloggers or writers. The biggest difference for me is not
being able to comment on trade/free agent stuff very much. I can be
vague and speak in generalities, but I don’t get to talk much about it
as a team employee (which at times is a nice thing). Other than that,
it’s very much the same. They’ve given me the freedom to criticize
when I see fit, which I told them was important. It’s not all sunshine
and lollipops when you float around .500, but at the same time I
definitely want to point out positives when possible.

Paul Trillsap has been awesome for the Hawks in Al Horford’s stead. He’s obviously been very good for a long time (though wildly underrated), but what’s been the most surprising part of his game this year?

Paul’s been great all year. His offensive game was a known commodity,
as he’s always been a good scorer who spaces the floor — although the
3-point shooting has been a pleasant surprise. The surprise for me has
been how good his defense has been. He averages almost two steals per
game and uses his active hands to disrupt entry passes. He’s been good
at timing his help rotations at the rim and gets a lot of his blocks
that way. Millsap’s also shown versatility guarding wings on the
perimeter well, while also doing well against bigger post players.
Everyone here expected a pretty significant defensive drop off after
Smoove left, but that hasn’t really been the case.

POP THE TOLLI – top NBA twitter name-pun/meme? Or…?

Pop the Tolli was my proudest creation of last season, and I’m
happy it lives on today. I think this year, while I love #Trillsap, I
have to give it to the Swagtime Lakers as my favorite name.

The Hawks’ offensive rebounding has been pretty woeful, which is somewhat surprising given how many threes they shoot (as threes are rebounded by the offensive team more often than mid-range shots). Is this a strategic element (they allow a below-average number of transition points) or simply a matter of personnel? In short, is it an area the Raptors can make hay, or simply the way the Hawks play?

The lack of offensive rebounding by the Hawks isn’t so much
personnel as it is their commitment to getting back to defend in
transition. Coach Bud always starts by talking about transition D as
the key before each game, no matter the opponent. The players have
taken that to heart, and in the process have sacrificed some 2nd
chance opportunities. If they’re forced into contested shots,
opponents can take advantage of it, but I don’t think there’s a major
advantage to be gained because they don’t often lead to transition
opportunities.

Vegas says: Raptors -6.5 with action split down the middle. The over-under is at an even 200 with the public leaning slightly to the over.
Hollinger says: Raptors-4.5 (not including impact of Tuesday’s game)
Kendrick Lamar Says: Anything worth having is worth the wait / Well I want the world, tell me how long that takes

Blake says: Here’s the thing with the Hawks – they’re pretty average, all things considered. That means that on a normal night, at home, the Raptors should be expecting a win. A tight game, surely, which raises the question of Mike Budenholzer’s impact, but a win nonetheless.

Amir Johnson being questionable for this one puts a wrinkle in things since he is, when healthy, the team’s best bet on Millsap. The Hawks are without Pero Antic, which means a lot of Gustavo Ayon and Elton Brand, which should negate Johnson’s absence some. The Raptors are faced with the somewhat risky proposition of bodying Millsap with bruisers instead of fleet-of-foot bigs, but, as Casey stressed Tuesday, this can be accounted for with quick, decisive rotations on the perimeter.

The point Robby and I discussed about the Hawks collapsing back in transition stands out as interesting to me, because this kind of plays in to what the Raptors do off of opponent misses. Despite ranking 12th in defensive rebound rate (post-Rudy Gay trade), the Raptors are 26th in fast break points, instead opting to set up their offense. When you see the Raptors out and running, that’s almost always off of a turnover, an area the Hawks really struggle. In other words, the collapsing of the Hawks after a shot isn’t necessarily a hindrance to the open-court game, but instead their heavy reliance on ball movement could provide opportunity to get out and run, assuming rotations aren’t sacrificed in the name of picked passes.

Robby’s point about the Teague/Lowry battle is also apt. While he was talking season-long, it should prove an exciting match-up in a single game, too. It’s a clear edge for Lowry based on performance this season and Teague is coming off a handful of bad games, though he had 17 points on 13 shots with 12 dimes against Lowry early in the year.

The team was stressing on Tuesday that Wednesday is all about focus. That’s kind of self-evident, but it does have the makings of a trap game – second in a row at home, tired opponent, five-day break coming up. It can also be a statement game, showing that this team is mentally tough and physically better than their closest East competitor. Let’s hope for the latter and go Raps by seven.