Hawks 102, Raptors 109 – Box
The Hawks offered an early test to wake the team out of preseason mode, and the Raptors were up for it. To appreciate the Raptors efforts in the 109-102 win, you first have to appreciate the Hawks. The visitors pose a difficult challenge in that they have speed at the wings, versatility and interchangeability in the frontcourt, great three-point shooting, and are extremely well-coached, particularly on the defensive end. The Raptors were tuned in right from tip-off and shifted their gears when needed to pull out a very hard-fought and physical opening night win. It was a game played at a markedly different intensity level than preseason, and served as a needed tap on the shoulder that the games matter.
The story to start the evening was Amir Johnson. He was somehow involved in everything the Raptors were doing, whether there was a play called for him or not. He scored on a post-up, was involved in good pick ‘n roll action, finished on a dump-off, fought hard on the offensive boards, and even checked Al Horford to good effect.
Not that the Raptors needed an energy boost from Johnson, but he provided one anyway. He appears to have added a little height to his hook-shot, which tends to bounce on the rim forever before going in. It’s a contract year for him as well and he’s going to be eager to highlight some of his offensive talents, and as long as he’s going about doing that around the rim, that’s quite alright with everyone.
The other early story was DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll. It’s very evident that the scouting report on DeRozan is to crowd him when he has an unused dribble, while forcing him to use his left hand to initiate the dribble going left, with help defense waiting. Carroll played him tightly at the right angles, and DeRozan didn’t have an answer in one-on-one situations. For example, in the below clip it would have been ideal if he drove left, met Horford, and spun away from the baseline towards the rim for a shot attempt.
This is nothing surprising and should not be an item of concern. His current strengths lie with the live dribble in face-up, catch-and-shoot, and catch-and-drive situations. His response to Carroll’s pressure was to attempt to create space, not quite succeed, and take a low-percentage shot. Not ideal, but as he showed in this game, there are other ways to positively impact a game than just scoring.
The 24-20 lead the Raptors held at the end of the first promised an entertaining game, because Paul Millsap’s versatility, especially in switches when Valanciunas was guarding him, Horford’s post-presence, and Jeff Teague’s quickness and excellent screen-usage, were posing the Raptors problems. They had responded with the aforementioned Amir Johnson, and some good shot-making from Ross, who was being checked by the defensively underrated Kyle Korver. An element of intrigue was also added by Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross picking up two fouls apiece.
Greivis Vasquez, who many had concerns over due to his preseason performances, showed just why preseason can’t be used as any kind of an indicator of regular season play. He hit two threes early in the second quarter (both assisted and out of strong ball movement) to give the Raptors an early 7-point edge, which came about in an all-bench unit of Williams, Vasquez, Patterson, Hansbrough, and James Johnson. The Raptors also forced five Hawks turnovers in that second (while committing none) and looked to have gained a measure of control up 10 with 7 minutes left after a couple Jonas Valanciunas free throws.
Though Valanciunas didn’t have any spectacular string of one-on-one moves, the 17 points, 8 rebounds and 9-10 FTs he notched was made even more impressive because of the very fews plays being called for him, and him being in foul trouble for the majority of the first half. His work on keeping the ball alive on the offensive glass was first-rate and he out-hustled every Atlanta big on the night.
I find that him and Dwane Casey have a love-hate relationship, where Casey loves him but hates it when he does silly things. The coach’s reaction to his third foul is quite demonstrative.
Casey did commend him after the game about his approach:
“He’s the biggest guy on the floor, so he used his length to his advantage. That’s what he has to do. Now he’s allowing the game to come to him instead of force-feeding it. It’s not, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to post-up, I have to make a play.’ Let the game come to you. Do your job. The ball will find you if you play the game the right way. That’s my theory.”
The lasting memory of the second quarter is Kyle Korver going 3-4 from three, usually at Terrence Ross’s expense. The latter was seen unnecessarily helping on pressure from up top, and leaving Korver alone in dangerous areas, and also struggling to keep up with the multiple screens Atlanta weaves for their hitman. Throw in a couple ill-advised jumpers from Ross and DeRozan, and the Hawks slashed the Raptors 10-point lead to a single point with two minutes left in the half. Momentum had shifted.
Then came Dwane Casey’s timeout.
Casey’s always had a good sense of when the tide has turned, and what kind of an injection the team needs. His talk in this timeout was probably quite simple: cover Korver, lose the jumpers, pressure their wings into drives, while keeping the defensive rotations underneath intact. Fairly simple stuff.
The first play coming out of the timeout was a great Kyle Lowry drive for an And1:
Nothing like calling up on your star player to make a concise but effective statement, and Lowry responded. A couple plays later, DeRozan came up with a good steal (he had six in the game), and passed it to Patterson in transition for the three:
This spurt renewed the Raptors, and gave them a quick reminder that all they needed to do in this game is to stretch Atlanta’s defense in transition, make them cover ground in the half-court by moving the ball, and stick to their shooters. This run burst Atlanta’s bubble, forced them to call their own timeout, and eventually ushered the Raptors into an eight-point halftime lead.
A word on DeRozan: this guy fights hard. He was being played very physical, didn’t have calls go his way, and his shot wasn’t dropping (4-16), yet he didn’t let that affect his approach to the game. Usually when you see a guard get 11 rebounds, you expect that many of them fell into his lap on lucky bounces. This was not the case, he was positioning and fighting for defensive boards, and was very active in help defense situations.
He may not be a great one-on-one defender, but his swipes on drives had an impact, and he used positioning and length to disrupt the passing lanes, notably on the passes back out to the perimeter after Teague drives. You don’t necessarily have to tip the ball or get a steal, just correct positioning on the court can dissuade a player from making a pass which would’ve led to a clean look. As he said after the game, it’s not just about scoring:
“It’s my job. I’m trying to not just be a scorer. If we’re not making shots — not just myself — we have to figure out other ways to impact the game in a big way. That was one thing I was trying to do.”
The second half started with an eerily similar theme: Kyle Korver hitting jumpers. This time the Raptors offense didn’t go into a mini-drought, and Terrence Ross even gave Korver a dose of his own medicine, by making the Atlanta swingman chase him on screens and score from the perimeter:
Kyle Lowry was leading from the back in this game, ended up with 11 points, 10 assists, and 0 turnovers. He asserted himself on offense when he felt the team needed a boost, and on this night found himself pressuring the defense, and then orchestrating his teammates rather than carrying the scoring load. His defense on Teague, particularly fighting through screens to prevent him from turning the corner had a lot to do with the Raptors containing the Hawks in the second half.
An unexpected source of fluidity and calm on the court was Tyler Hansbrough, who carried his preseason form into opening night by not appearing out of phase in the offense. Instead of his usual approach of aimlessly waiting for a shot to go up so he can fight for an offensive board, and in the process pick up a loose-ball foul, he presented himself to his guards very well. To boot, his movements stretched the defense and I couldn’t find a better example of this great show at the top of the key, followed by a sweet DeRozan assist for the pick ‘n roll score:
The very definition of a balanced attack is one where the threat may come from anywhere, and on this night the Raptors had seven players in double figures. The defensive solidarity was present for the majority of the game and the compete-level on the boards (thanks in great part to Valanciunas) was also present and manifested itself in a 48-42 advantage, and a 26-11 second-chance point edge, which was enough to overcome the Hawks shooting 50%.
The problems caused by Millsap, Korver, Horford, and Teague and not concerns but part of the rigor that is the NBA. These are fantastic players who will have their moments during the course of a 48-minute game; it’s how the Raptors respond to stretches of adversity that will define their season and character.
The 26-19 third quarter ultimately proved to be decisive, as the Raptors limited the Hawks to 41% shooting, ran the break well (6-2 fast-break points in the quarter), and ended the quarter with a defensive stop and a great Lou Williams score:
The 15-point lead heading into the fourth quarter was upped to 19 after two back-to-back Jonas Valanciunas scores, as part of a mix-and-match lineup which saw Patterson, Williams, Valanciunas, James Johnson, and Vasquez run the offense. This unit sustained the lead, and it wasn’t until the Hawks got hot from three in the traditional road team desperation run to cut it to 4. A couple Kyle Lowry free throws gave a good buffer, before things were made nervy by DeRozan missing both free throws. After rebounding his own miss, he hit two to ice the game.
The late Hawks run might speak to a dip in defensive concentration, likely caused by some calls not going the Raptors way, and since I hate talking about officiating unless I really have to, I’m going to leave it at that. As I said before, the Hawks are a talented team and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they were able to make a run.
The Raptors, specifically DeRozan, would benefit from keeping their cool in the face of poor officiating, or at least not let the non-call on the offensive possession affect the subsequent defensive possession, which is how Atlanta got one of their late threes. It’s all water under the bridge, though, and in the end the Raptors come away with a gritty and physical win which sets a good tone heading into the two-game Florida trip.
Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette