Bring on the Hawks.
There is just under a week left in the NBA’s regular season and a ton of chaos to be played out in the next six days. However things play out, I’m hoping Toronto ends up in a first-round match-up with the Atlanta Hawks.
ATL is in a funk. As of writing this, they were 2-8 in their last ten games and play Boston, Cleveland twice, Charlotte and Indiana in their remaining five games. Given their schedule, one of Chicago, Indiana or Miami could jump up to the six spot. I’m rooting for everything to end up with us playing the Hawks for a few reasons.
One, the Atlanta fanbase is a fickle one. We will inevitably lose Game 1 of the series and give the Hawks homecourt advantage, but it won’t feel so bad when we see the average Atlanta crowd. Plus, the Starters are in Atlanta, so we would have at least a couple Raptors supporters in the crowd.
Alright, on to the serious analysis. Let’s just take a look at the Atlanta Hawks post-All Star break: they are 7-14 with a -3.6 point differential. That point differential is good for 6th worst in the league when looking at the whole season, wedged between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. (Their margin of victory overall is -1.31, 10th worst.)
Their offence is really struggling as Paul Millsap has missed games with a knee injury. Post-All Star, their offensive rating is 98.9. That number is four points worse than the worst offence in the league, and last year’s version of the Philadelphia tank experience put up a 98.8 offensive rating.
The Hawks have been solid defensively with a 102.6 defensive rating, and a top-five defence overall. Atlanta’s D has been their calling card throughout the Mike Budenholzer era, and he can continues to orchestrate schemes that complement the roster. Bud hasn’t really had an answer for Toronto this season, as the Raptors scored 128 and 121 in their first two games, though ATL held the Lowry-less roster to 99 in a mid-March game.
They have some pieces that could be disruptive to most teams, but Toronto’s depth allows them to match up well. Dwight Howard is a maligned player since the will-he-go-or-will-he-stay Orlando Magic saga, but he’s still effective. The centre is 10th in defensive RPM and top five in rebounding too. Jonas Valanciunas is a fine match-up for him for the 20-odd minutes he’ll play, and if JV gets Dwight in early foul trouble just once in the series, that’s a huge win. If Toronto goes small with Serge Ibaka at the five, that’s another win. Putting Dwight into pick and pops means they’ll have to choose to shut off the ball handler and leave Ibaka (who is shooting just under 40% from three as a Raptor) or load up in help so Howard can stay home with Serge.
The options behind Howard don’t really provide a solution. Paul Millsap can play the small ball game, but that exposes their already-poor rebounding. With Millsap on and Howard off, Atlanta sports a defensive rebounding percentage of 74.7% per nbawowy which would rank second-worst in the league. Combine that with the fact Toronto is a top-ten offensive rebounding team (largely buoyed by Jonas Valanciunas, who is top ten in offensive rebounding percentage) and you’ve got a recipe for defensive disaster for ATL.
Enigmatic point guard Dennis Schroeder could be responsible for guarding Kyle Lowry for significant stretches, though I could see the Hawks swapping Schroeder onto DeMarre Carroll so another wing could try disrupt Lowry with length. Schroeder has had an up-and-down season and most of his value comes offensively. He doesn’t rank in the top 40 of point guards by defensive RPM. His defensive rating is 109, a middling number that is especially concerning when you consider he’s responsible for corralling the main attack.
And if you haven’t heard, DeMar DeRozan’s a problem for defences. Kent Bazemore is a good defender having a down year, and though he’s struggled in the playoffs, seeing DeMar keep the offence afloat without Lowry gives me confidence that 2017 will see a different DeRozan.
Now, we flip to the offence. Schroeder is the straw that stirs the drink for Atlanta’s offence, but they’ve been in an aforementioned down period on that end. Schroeder can’t shoot — 33.8% this year, a career high — and struggles with turnovers as he is prone to putting his head down to get to the rim.
Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha are useful players, but they don’t really create their own shot. They are three-and-D wings, but neither shoots better than 35%. Mike Dunleavy can shoot, but he’s a mess defensively and I doubt we’ll see him for very long.
The real deal is supposed to be Millsap. He’s a funky four, capable of a whole whack of stuff, but even he hasn’t been himself.
The former “future-Raptor” has played in 66 games this year, and he’s shooting a brutal 31.2% from three on 3.5 attempts per game. That’s the highest rate of his career and worst percentage since 2011-12, when he was taking less than a three per game. In the 13 games he’s played since the All-Star break, Millsap is shooting 23.9%. In theory, the Raptors could just let Millsap shoot and see if he’ll beat them from outside. He’s not the same player, and Toronto won’t have to treat him as such.
ATL’s bench has some threats; Ersan Ilyasova has Raptor killer written all over him as a pick and pop big, and Tim Hardaway Jr. is the kind of player who will get hot and win a playoff game for a team. Taurean Prince is playing more these days, but he’s not even shooting 40% overall. Toronto’s built a better bench this year, and any Ilyasova problems could be handled by P.J. Tucker or Serge Ibaka. Hardaway Jr. is a simple fix too, as the Raptors can employ Tucker or Norm Powell to give different looks.
And who is going to score The Bucket for Atlanta? In past playoffs, it felt like Toronto didn’t have the best player in the series for the final three minutes. Whether it was Paul Pierce, Paul George or Dwyane Wade, there always seemed to be someone who would crush the Raptor fanbase with one shot. But the Hawks? No way. Millsap is nearly washed, Schroeder can play out of control and I doubt they’re going to Dwight Howard in the post (dawg) for crunch-time scores.
I could go on but you get the point. Atlanta’s an easy opponent for a Raptors team that will still be working out the kinks between Serge, Lowry and DeRozan, so it would be an ideal opponent. But then again, we said similar things about Indiana, didn’t we?