Is is March 6, there are 20 games left on the schedule, and the Toronto Raptors have played so well that their magic number is already dwindling close to zero. With wins Tuesday and Wednesday, the Raptors would secure not only another six-game winning streak – giving them five of the 18-longest winning streaks in franchise history this season and setting up a Streak vs. Streak battle against the Houston Rockets on Friday – they’d secure their fifth consecutive playoff appearance, something they’ve never done before.
The Raptors have bigger goals than clinching early, of course. They’ll be measured by playoff success, and to that end, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference would be helpful. There’s also the allure of round numbers, with DeMar DeRozan admitting Monday that the Raptors would like to win 60 games, something they’ll need to finish 15-5 to do. With five back-to-backs, two games each against Cleveland and Boston, and visits from Houston and Oklahoma City, that could be tough, but it’s not at all unrealistic.
It will, however, require continuing to take care of lesser teams like the visiting Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. The Hawks visit in the middle of a heated tanking battle that has the league’s eight worst teams all within three games of each other in the standings, and their roster reflects a team focused on the future. Still, they’ve won two of three, playing the Golden State Warriors tight in a loss and beating the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers. These are guys playing for future roles or future contracts, with a high-energy style that forces a lot of opponent mistakes. They’re also a bottom-10 offense and defense that struggles to rebound on the defensive end and turns the ball over ad nauseam so, you know, it’s still pretty winnable, and the Raptors are double-digit favorites as a result.
The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: Right as I open this email to send this, you’ve tweeted out the 538 projections of the lottery standings as of Sunday. Needless to say, it feels like that’s where the mind of most Hawks fans is right now. And it looks good, like the Hawks will be within an accidental win or two of the best odds at the No. 1 pick. Is this the primary focus from here? Have the Hawks been fairly blatant in their chase of that end?
Brad Rowland: I think most fans are certainly more engaged in the race for ping-pong balls than anything else at this point. The Hawks had a “bad win” on Sunday against the Suns in that regard and, in general, Atlanta hasn’t done enough in terms of blatant tanking to satisfy the zealots. Still, we saw the Hawks rest Kent Bazemore in a home game on Sunday and that could be the start of more to come.
Blake Murphy: There has to be more to focus on than just losses, right? What other elements are you looking at in the final 20 games? Is it all John Collins and Taurean Prince development? What’s up, Tyler Dorsey?
Brad Rowland: Yeah, there has to be some focus on player development and, given that it is the Hawks, that is always a focus. Collins and Prince are the two best on-roster chips for the organization and, frankly, Collins has exceeded any rational expectation. I’m lower on Prince than I once was and that has a lot to do with waning effort and some poor defense this year, so it would be nice to see more from him down the stretch. Dorsey’s had some flashes but, in general, the Hawks have a ton of young guys that they are monitoring with only a small few that appear to have real upside.
Blake Murphy: Why in the world did the Hawks sign Antonius Cleveland? I like Cleveland in general and know the Hawks had to meet the roster minimum, but there are about 30 good G Leaguers worth a look who are not injured. This was…bizarre.
Brad Rowland: It was certainly weird. The Hawks have now signed him to a second 10-day contract and my assumption all along was that they were signing him as a piece to keep through the summer and into camp next year. It’s looking to be moving in that direction, even if the optics are very weird and I’ve received approximately 674 questions about why the Hawks signed an injured player to a 10-day.
Blake Murphy: Were you surprised the Hawks couldn’t get anything for Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, instead just buying them out? (Thanks for helping Philly load up, by the way.) I know you’d grown to be not much of a Belinelli fan, but they might be the two best pieces that moved on the buyout market.
Brad Rowland: There is some buzz out there (and that I’ve heard as well) that the Hawks had at least one deal in place for Ilyasova that he vetoed with his implicit no-trade clause. As a result, I don’t think it was a matter of not being able to get anything for Ersan, but rather a hiccup from the deal they signed him to. With Belinelli, I was mildly surprised but it does seem like the Hawks could have traded him, they just didn’t have any desire to take back money beyond this year. Schlenk has been pretty open about that and there were murmurs about Jerryd Bayless (and a few other vets) that Atlanta seemingly just wouldn’t want to take on. Belinelli was bad in Atlanta but, from an optics standpoint, it wasn’t ideal to be forced to buy him out.
Blake Murphy: Atlanta is back! I don’t have a question, I’m just very happy and need more DG and Lakeith in my life.
Brad Rowland: Atlanta is so, so good. I’m hopelessly biased as a resident of the city for 25+ years but the show is spectacular. That’s all I’ve got.
Toronto is once again getting well ahead of things by ruling OG Anunoby out early in the game notes. That takes away any shootaround or pre-game questions about his status and my hunt for the presence of a walking boot on other players’ social media accounts. Anunoby was using the stationary bike and rowing machine at practice yesterday. Dwane Casey has said they don’t expect him to miss significant time. Just in case, the team called up Alfonzo McKinnie for practice on Monday and signed Nigel Hayes to a 10-day deal. Two of those two and Malcolm Miller will be active, and the starting small forward spot could go to any of them, or to C.J. Miles, or back to Norman Powell. Hayes won’t officially be signed until today, and it might be a bit much to have him enter the fold immediately, so he could get a day on the inactive list to get his bearings. At the same time, the Hawks represent a potential opportunity to get him low-stakes run.
Whoever Casey starts, the importance will be downplayed. The team is trying to get a look at a number of players in extended opportunities so that they can better judge their progress and their potential usefulness for the playoffs. Powell would still stand as the favorite to hold down that “emergency” role long-term, and at some point he should get another crack because the upside to getting him going is so high. That might be here, or it might be Wednesday, or it might be Friday against James Harden. Heck, two of these guys could start Tuesday if the Raptors want to begin focusing on end-of-season rest on back-to-backs against bad opponents.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Nigel Hayes
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown
Atlanta comes in pretty banged up and looking a lot different around the periphery than in earlier meetings between the sides. Obviously, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyaosva being gone takes away two of their more polished, veteran offensive pieces, and they’ve basically been replaced with in-house or G League options. And even those are limited – Antonius Cleveland stays getting 10-days despite an ankle injury, Okaro White is still recovering from a foot fracture, and Tyler Cavanaugh has a sprained right ankle. Those are minor losses, sure, but added up, they leave the Hawks a little thin. And it gets worse for this one. Malcolm Delaney and DeAndre’ Bembry are out Tuesday, too, the former dealing with an ankle issue and the latter an abdominal injury.
The Hawks have called up Josh Magette and Andrew White for help, and Jaylen Morris remains with the team on a 10-day deal. Minutes could go any number of ways once Mike Budenholzer gets past his starters, who have played a whopping 90 minutes together on the year with a surprising plus-9.6 net rating. That’s a very low “most commonly used fivesome,” and it’s the team’s only lineup that’s played more than 41 minutes together that will be available to them here. Expect an extended look at Tyler Dorsey, as well as all the Plum that fits to Lee.
PG: Dennis Schroder, Isaiah Taylor, Josh Magette
SG: Kent Bazemore, Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Morris
SF: Taurean Prince, Andrew White
PF: John Collins, Mike Muscala
C: Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee
OUT: Antonius Cleveland, Okaro White, Malcolm Delaney, DeAndre’ Bembry, Tyler Cavanaugh
The Raptors are 12.5-point favorites with a 218 over-under. The line initially opened at Raptors -14 with a 215.5 over-under but moved quickly, apparently standing as too wide a gap for the market. For reference, the Warriors are 14.5-point favorites at home against the Nets.