7:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Toronto -1, Over/Under: 200.5
Eastern Conference powerhouses NOT named the Cleveland Cavaliers clash tonight in the great North, as the Toronto Raptors host the surging Atlanta Hawks tonight at Air Canada Centre. Coaches always preach carrying momentum into the postseason, and given his side’s recent torrid play, Mike Budenholzer has to be very satisfied with what he’s seen from the Hawks (45-30, 1st in Southeast Division). Winners of fourteen of their last seventeen games, few teams this side of the Warriors and Spurs have been as hot as Atlanta, who appear to be making a late run up the standings in the East. With that said, last year’s No. One Seed trails tonight’s opponent by five games, which may seem like a sizable differential, but with a quartet of meetings left with both the Raptors and the Cavaliers amongst their final seven scheduled games, the potential of making up a good deal of ground is still very much there. Of course, a loss tonight would all but render those prospects moot, which is something that Budenholzer is no doubt lamenting to his charges, who conclude a three-game road trip tonight north of the border. Weary legs appeared to be the case Monday Night in Chicago, where Atlanta very nearly coughed up a comfortable lead in the hard-fought 102-100 victory. After falling behind 31-22 at the end of the first stanza, the Hawks went on to outscore the hosts 58-40 over the ensuing two periods, owning a nine-point lead entering the Fourth Quarter, where they appeared to run out of gas a bit. Thankfully, Jeff Teague broke out of the recent funk that he’s been mired in (13.8 points over the past six games), scoring a game-high twenty-six points on an efficient 9-of-18 shooting from the field (50.0%), to go along with six rebounds and seven assists. Four other Hawks scored in double-figures, despite a relatively poor shooting performance in which the visiting side shot just 42.4% from the field, including a dreadful 5-of-22 from beyond the arc (22.7%). As usual, they exhibited excellent ball distribution, dishing out twenty-two assists, but created the majority of their damage from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 25-of-28 Free-Throws (89.3%), compared to just eleven for the Bulls, whom they earned a four-game season sweep of with the victory. Despite the narrow decision, the matchup with Chicago represented the very definition of a favorable one for Budenholzer and his charges, having wiped the floor with them with relative ease in each of the previous three meetings. That hasn’t been the case against Toronto, who have defeated the Hawks in each of their two encounters thus far; the reigning Southeast Division Champions have struggled offensively against tonight’s counterpart, getting outscored by an average of 9.0 points per game on a dismal 39.5% shooting from the field, including just 30.0% from downtown. Furthermore, the Raptors have so disrupted their ball movement to the point where they have averaged just 19.7 helpers in those meetings. Now that may seem like a healthy figure for most teams, but in the case of Atlanta, it’s the fewest dimes they’ve managed to hand out against any opponent this season. And as the Cavaliers exposed in last year’s Conference Finals, that is where this group can be exploited. Much has been made in the past of the Hawks not possessing any requisite Star Players, whereas they’re simply a group of really good to solid players that complement each other wonderfully in the confines of Budenholzer’s system. As a result, they’ve proven to be a collection of pieces that is together greater than the sum of their parts. Think of them as a group of Specialists fulfilling designated roles if you will, and while they’ve proven devastatingly effective at times, when you get them out of their system, things fall apart rather quickly. Which brings us to the Raptors, whose athletic and aggressive Backcourt can attack and overwhelm the likes of the aforementioned Teague (15.1 points, 6.0 assists) and sharpshooting swingman Kyle Korver (9.4 points, 39.7% 3FG). Atlanta averages 25.7 assists per game, second-highest in the league, yet the only player that can consistently create shots for himself is Teague, whom so much of their outstanding ball movement flows through. Keep an eye on his matchup with Lowry, and how it effects his ability to create opportunities for his teammates against Toronto’s physical defense.
Meanwhile, the Raptors (49-24, 1st in Atlantic Division), despite being in shouting distance of the Cavs for the No. One Seed in the Eastern Conference, have not played well of late, losing three out of their past four games. Of course, this followed a stellar stretch in which Dwayne Casey’s outfit had won thirteen out of seventeen contests following the All-Star Break, brining them within three games of Cleveland in the standings. Quite frankly, the problem has been health, or the lack of it, as nagging injuries of lingered throughout the team’s talented roster. Third-year swingman Terrence Ross (9.4 points, 38.2% 3FG) has missed the past three outings with a sore thumb, while the aforementioned Lowry (21.6 points, 6.5 assists, 2.1 steals) has been playing with an ailing elbow that has clearly effected his performance of late; often resembling a Pit Bull on the court, Lowry has averaged just 14.5 points on a miserable 26.2% shooting from the field over the last four contests. In Monday Night’s 119-100 blowout loss against the Thunder, the veteran Point Guard was completely ineffective, shooting a poor 4-of-14 from the field (28.6%). And let us not forget that Casey’s charges have been playing without former Hawks’ Forward DeMarre Carroll (11.7 points, 37.8% 3FG), who has missed the past thirty-seven games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Reports indicate that the energetic veteran has resumed basketball activities, but currently has no timetable for his return. That’s some rather significant firepower that they’ve been without, and Lowry aside, two of their better sharpshooters. And that attrition was a situation that Oklahoma City exploited ruthlessly in their victory at Air Canada Centre two nights ago; the visitors were anything but polite, shooting 47.7% from the field, including 11-of-26 from beyond the arc (42.3%), while taking residence at the Free-Throw Line, netting 26-of-32 attempts (81.3%), compared to just sixteen for the home side. Oh, and then there’s the matter of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook absolutely eviscerating any opposition the hosts could muster, with the latter posting yet another Triple-Double consisting of twenty-six points, eleven rebounds, and a dozen assists. Hell, Durant nearly added a Trifecta as well, coming up two rebounds and assists shy himself, to go with his game-high thirty-four points. As we stated earlier, Lowry was subject to a poor shooting night, but he was not alone, as the Raptors in general rarely found the bottom of the net with any sense of regularity, shooting 40.9% from the floor, including 8-of-24 from three (33.3%). Curiously, they assisted on a healthy nineteen of their thirty-eight field goals, and only committed nine turnovers, but at the end of the day, they simply didn’t make nearly enough shots. DeMar DeRozan led the hosts with nineteen points, and he too was a victim of poor shooting, managing just 8-of-22 overall (36.4%). Perhaps facing the Hawks, who they’ve enjoyed such success against this season, will help this team right the ship. Toronto owns the distinction of being one of the few teams to have defeated Atlanta during their current run, besting them in a 104-96 triumph back on March 10th; Casey’s unit bludgeoned the Birds, holding them to 42.7% shooting from the field, including 7-of-23 from beyond the arc (30.4%) , while outrebounding them by commanding 48-33 margin. Big men Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola did the bulk of the dirty work in the paint, accounting for twenty points and twenty-two rebounds, seven of which where of the offensive variety, but no Raptor made more of an impact than DeRoza, who totaled thirty points on 11-of-20 shooting from the floor (55.0%). While he’s not much of a long range shooter, though he’s improved A LOT, the 26-year old, two-time All-Star is one of the premier slashers in the game today, exhibiting the athleticism to get to the rim at will, while proving to be a true blur in transition. In his seventh season, DeRozan is averaging career-highs in scoring (23.6), Three-Point Percentage (32.8%), Free-Throw Percentage (84.6%), Assists (4.0), and Player Efficiency Rating (21.3). He, like Lowry, has shown an uncanny propensity of getting to the Stripe, attempting a career-best 8.5 Free-Throws a night, making 7.3 of his attempts. With his contract due to expire during the Offseason, he is sure to be in high demand.