The NBA schedule makers seemed to have a sense of when the Toronto Raptors may need to right the ship. The Raptors will play the Atlanta Hawks four times this season, including their second meeting of the year on Friday. The Hawks are the league’s worst team, by record and probably on paper, as well. The last time these teams met, the Raptors had just lost back-to-back games for only the second time, and Atlanta offered an opportunity for a 34-point palate-cleansing victory. Coincidentally, the Raptors have lost two in a row once again here as the Hawks visit. Their next meeting will come after a back-to-back against San Antonio and at Minnesota, another potential two-game skid.
None of this is to suggest the Hawks are certain slump-busters or that Friday’s game is a layup. Head coach Dwane Casey will certainly be using Tuesday’s loss to a nearly-as-bad Dallas Mavericks team as a lesson in what happens when the energy level doesn’t indicate a proper level of respect for an opponent. And the Raptors’ desire to make the Air Canada Centre a difficult place to play should, if they mean it, ratchet up the intensity here. Mostly, though, the Hawks present an opportunity to once again build some confidence back up and keep a two-game mini-skid from becoming a bona fide losing streak heading into 2018 and a tough New Year’s Day matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.
This is about the end of the “easy” stretch on the schedule, so the Raptors need to make hay while the sun shines.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 2 and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: When we talked about a month back, it sounded like Luka Doncic was the apple of your eye should 2 Chainz land the Hawks the No. 1 pick as their draft lottery rep in June. Has your feeling changed on that front at all? Or has the Doncic hype-train evolved to where Hawks fans are pretty narrowed in on him?
Brad Rowland: I’m still a Doncic guy. I think there will always be a segment of Hawks fans (and NBA fans in general) that won’t buy in when it comes to a European prospect of any kind but I’m sold on him as a multi-time All-Star. There are certainly guys (Ayton, Bagley, etc.) that could have more pure upside but, all things considered, I’d still roll with Doncic at No. 1 right now, even if that isn’t universal.
Blake Murphy: We’ve also spoken about DeAndre’ Bembry in the past, though he was just making his way back the last time the sides met. It’s taken him a bit of time to rediscover his form in the last month. Where is he at in his sophomore season?
Brad Rowland: Bembry’s defense has been impressive to say the least and he’s the best perimeter defender on Atlanta’s roster at the moment. Offensively, though, he has lagged a bit. Some of that may be attributable to his absences due to injury but his jumper remains a work in progress and his creation ability hasn’t surfaced just yet. I’m not bailing on him but it is reasonable to say that he isn’t quite where I thought he’d be at this point.
Blake Murphy: Last time out, we touched on the possibility of the Hawks moving Dennis Schroder if the right offer came along. A few weeks out from the trade deadline, is there anyone you expect to see dealt? Ersan Ilyasova has to be placed on the block at least twice per-season by rule of the CBA.
Brad Rowland: Schröder would be the nuclear option but I certainly expect the Hawks to move a player or two. Ilyasova makes a ton of sense given that he’s on an expiring deal and could help a lot of teams. The same also goes for Marco Belinelli, albeit not quite at the same level. For a while, it looked as if Dewayne Dedmon would be a hot commodity but he’s been battling injury so that may not transpire. For me, everyone should be available that isn’t locked up long-term and that means some potential fireworks.
Blake Murphy: So, John Collins. I didn’t quite expect all of this so soon. How rewarding has it been not only to see him put up big numbers but own some of the best advanced metrics on the team at such an early stage of his development? The return on this fantasy investment keeps giving.
Brad Rowland: Collins really has exceeded any rational expectation. I was pretty sure he would rebound and provide energy and efficiency offensively. He has definitely done that but the 20-year-old has flashed more creation (and passing) than I thought offensively and he’s a genuine terror on the offensive glass. Defensively, there are some growing pains but he is far ahead of schedule based on how bad he was defensively in college and there is no chance he’d slip to No. 19 in a re-draft. He’s a stud.
Blake Murphy: Yay or Nay on the Hawks’ “City” alternate with the Volt coloring? How about the Raptors’ OVO-colored “North” look?
Brad Rowland: I’m in on both. I don’t love the presence of volt in general with the Hawks but, once you get past that, I think it is actually an upgrade on at least one of their normal jerseys. I can see how Toronto’s edition would be controversial but I like it quite a bit.
Until things started getting out of hand Wednesday and Dwane Casey was searching for a spark, it looked as if Norman Powell may have been the odd man out of the rotation. With everyone back to health now, there are 12 players Casey’s used as regular rotation pieces this year. That’s still a positive, and depth is good – the schedule is a little compressed in the back half of the year and the focus remains on keeping minutes down for the stars, which is easier with a deep rotation – but there are going to be nights when one or two of these players draw the short straw. Powell has played poorly for chunks of the season. The team should probably let him play through that a bit, it’s just hard when those minutes are coming at the expense of Delon Wright or C.J. Miles (or Fred VanVleet, whose minutes seem pretty safe even with Wright back).
This should make for some interesting games ahead. If things go to form against Atlanta, maybe Powell gets a chance to get some confidence back in low-leverage minutes. Maybe a rematch with the Milwaukee Bucks next week helps him find that playoff gear. Maybe it doesn’t matter, and Casey’s going to go back to 12-man first quarters, anyway.
Also, there are four players with Raptors 905 who figure to stay there most of the next bit. The 905 have home games Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday, and since both teams are home, they could all conceivably do the daily up-and-down to be a part of the action with both sides.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller
Atlanta has undergone some changes since the Raptors last saw them a month ago, though they’re not necessarily good ones. Ersan Ilyaosva is back and healthy, at least, and he’s been starting as part of Mike Bundeholzer’s fluid starting five. Miles Plumlee has also drawn in there, shifting John Collins to a bench role. A lot of this juggling is happening because Dewayne Dedmon is on the shelf now, and while Mike Muscala has been getting G League time to get his feet back under him, he remains inactive per the injury report here. DeAndre Bembry’ was also assigned to the G League for some extra work this week, but the guess here is he’ll be recalled, lest the Hawks be running a little thin. Oh, and they converted Tyler Cavanaugh’s two-way deal to a proper NBA contract.
The injuries and search for fits have been aggressive, and the Hawks don’t have many heavily used lineups to pull data from as a result. Their most commonly used group are the projected starters below, who have played to a slight positive in 122 minutes. They only have one other fivesome available that’s even played 40 minutes together and includes Cavanaugh in with the starters and Ilyasova shifted to the five, though they’ve been slightly outscored.
PG: Dennis Schroder, Malcolm Delaney, Isaiah Taylor
SG: Kent Bazemore, Marco Belinelli, Tyler Dorsey
SF: Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry
PF: Ersan Ilysaova, Luke Babbitt, Tyler Cavanaugh
C: Miles Plumlee, John Collins
OUT: Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala
Erie: Josh Magette
The Raptors are 11-point favorites with a whopping 216 over-under, the highest on the day by a good margin.