The league’s hottest team rolls into town.
Apologies for the shortened post. I’m at the NASH CUP conference in Ottawa at the moment and the lunch break is only one hour. Bear with me here.
Who would have thought that the Atlanta Hawks would be this good? Like, 31-8, winners of their last ten and 24 of 26, good?
People knew that the Hawks would be pretty good, topping out to sub-contender status in the Eastern Conference. Playing without all-star center Al Horford for much of last season, the Hawks barely qualified for the playoffs with a record of 38-44. They played an aesthetically pleasing style of basketball touted by former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, but it was thought that a lack of starpower would ultimately trump the Hawks’ intricate sets and disciplined players.
And then this season happened. 24 of 26 happened.
The Hawks have vaunted themselves into elite status by building and perfecting their sets. Watch a Hawks game. You’ll see that every player is disciplined, orchestrated and following orders. Every cut, every screen, every drive — it’s all for a purpose. Only, it’s never easy to discern for exactly what purpose. A ball screen by Horford could be a pick-and-roll. Or he could pop and shoot the jumper. He is, after all, one of the league’s best mid-range shooters. Or, Horford could then set a down screen to free up Kyle Korver for three. Or Teague could drive and attack off the bounce using his quickness. Or they could throw it to Millsap in the post while shooters dart around the floor, attacking the defense’s pressure points with pinpoint precision.
The result is this: the Hawks are 9-3 against the top-12 teams in the league, better than teams like the Warriors (7-4) and Grizzlies (9-6). They’ve even dominated on the road, boasting a record of 15-5. That includes wins against the Wizards, Blazers, Clippers, Rockets, Mavericks and Cavaliers.
So in short, the Hawks are good. Really good.
But they Raptors are 2-0 against them this season. It’s hard to explain the Raptors’ success, but I’d point to the Raptors’ hyperactive defensive scheme as an ideal defense for many of Atlanta’s pass-heavy sets. The Raptors won both contests by a combined margin of 18 points, scoring an average of 117.5 points per game, but it wasn’t a case of someone catching on fire. Vasquez dropped 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the second outing, but that’s the only notable outlier from either game.
Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez vs. Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder
The return of DeRozan should lighten the load on Lowry, which should theoretically free Lowry to turn up the intensity on defense. Lowry has been terrible in preventing dribble penetration this season and he’ll need to stay in front of Teague and Schroder, who are both lightning-fast guards.
DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Terrence Ross, James Johnson vs. Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Thabo Sefolosha
Can DeRozan play at full speed? Can he operate in the post against Carroll? Can Ross stick with Korver around screens? Call me skeptical, but given Ross’s recent malaise, given that DeRozan is returning from an injury, my answer would be no to each. I really hope I’m wrong.
Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough vs. Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Pero Antic, Mike Scott
Every member of the Hawks’ frontcourt can shoot, which spells trouble for Valanciunas. My guess is that Casey will try to match by playing a faster frontcourt. The onus then falls onto Amir to be healthy enough to defend reliably and for Patterson to nail his outside shots. James Johnson could be useful as a smallball four in spots.
Raptors are at home, which likely explains why they’re favored by 1 point by Vegas. For me, it comes down to their defense, which has been terrible (28th-ranked) for months. They’ll need to rotate without being too aggressive, and shut down the Hawks’ potent 3-point attack. Good luck with that.
Raptors 102, Hawks 109