Before getting to far into what ailed the Toronto Raptors last night I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. After years of mismanagement and poor results, the Hawks organization finally seems to have turned things around.
Having only seen the box scores and small packages of highlights from the Hawks earlier games it was hard, prior to last night’s match-up, to really gauge what the Hawks are all about and how exactly they are winning games. After watching this team in action it’s now crystal clear what makes this team so good. First, for the first time in years, this squad is actually playing like a team. Second, their roster may be the most athletic in the league.
If it wasn’t for Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks, the Altanta Hawks would have been the laughing stock of the league for a number of years now. Questionable free-agent signings (see Speedy Claxton), hit or miss drafting (see Josh Smith and some guy named Chris Paul), inexplicable trades (see Rasheed Wallace) and ownership issues all contributed to in some way to create a franchise with no direction. That lack of direction has been very evident over the years as a trip to Atlanta usually meant a W for the opposing team. Hawks’ teams of the past barely qualified as being "teams" and their squads were usually made up of individuals playing as individuals.
Well things have quickly turned in Georgia’s biggest city. Since the acquisition of veteran point guard Mike Bibby, things have suddenly taken a turn for the better. As mentioned in the preview, this team has all the elements to make for a breakout year. After watching this team dominate the Toronto Raptors, even without Josh Smith for the majority of the game, I don’t see any reason why they can’t make some serious noise in the East.
Since Bibby’s arrival this team has started to play as a team. Now that Joe Johnson is no longer being asked to play the point but rather to play his natural position at the two, everyone seems to have gotten on the same page and the results have been solid. A veteran PG was just what this squad needed to help steady the ship and direct this collection of young super-freak athletes.
And make no mistake about it - this is one athletic team.
If you were to match-up Altanta’s starting five against any other starting five in the league you would have a tough time trying to match their combination of youth, athleticism and skill. Not even our beloved Raptors can come close as they are outmatched at every position on a pure athleticism scale. That includes CB4, who was matched up early with J-Smooth.
Of course being athletic and being good ball players are two totally different things. Until this season it looked like Atlanta only had athletes. Now they have athletes who understand basketball and Mike Woodson is running an offense that takes advantage of these qualities. The rest of the L needs to make note.
In last night’s match-up, Atlanta’s guards and swingmen, where so much of their talent resides, absolutely dominated the Raps. Actually domination may be an understatement as the trio of Bibby, Johnson and Williams outscored their counterparts (Calderon, Parker and Moon) 50 to 14. It’s not pretty writing those numbers down and it was less pretty having to watch it.
Bibby, Johnson and Williams had their way with the Raptors on this evening and never faced any true resistance when running their sets. Joe Johnson continues to be an absolute weapon on the offensive end where his ability to draw the extra defender resulted in countless open looks for his teammates and when left with a small window of opportunity to hoist a shot he did successfully. Frankly, JJ made the Raptors look bad.
The Hawks were so lethal at the offensive end that Sam Mitchell was left searching for some combination of players to help provide defensive pressure. In the third quarter Coach Mitchell put Bargnani on the court with Bosh and JO.
Despite Jack Armstrong’s support of such a move it ended up in disaster as Marvin Williams quickly took advantage of Bargnani beating him off the bounce and getting to the rim at will. The reality is if Bargnani can’t defend Marvin Williams at the 3, he should never be asked to play the 3 again. Despite Williams’ raw talent, his ball handling leaves much to be desired, but against a much slower Bargs you would never know it. In theory, three 7-footers on the court at one time sounds like a good idea, but in practice it isn’t when one of them doesn’t play like one.
Atlanta’s superior guard play also helped negate the early advantage the Raps had when big-man Al Horford found himself in foul trouble. As discussed in the preview, forcing Atlanta to go deeper into their bench in the front-court would help the Raps compensate for their weaknesses in other areas. On this night however Mike Woodson could have pulled Mr. Wilkins out of the luxury suite and put him on the floor and the Raps still would have lost. The Dinos simply couldn’t contain the Hawks.
What’s disappointing is that Atlanta’s annihilation of the Raps swingmen greatly overshadows the fact that Jermaine O’Neal had a solid bounce back game. Although O’Neal is not dominating games like he once did he is slowly becoming more and more confident on the floor.
You can tell after every game that he is slowly beginning to truly trust his knee and I firmly believe the best is yet to come. Even if O'Neal never regains his All-Star form he continues to be a tremendous defensive presence as evidenced by his 3 blocks and countless other altered shots. He is also willing to commit the hard foul, which is something no-one on this team last year was willing to do.
I think I speak for all fans when I say last night’s game was a big disappointment and probably the low point in the season thus far.
When Franchise and I were discussing the game at the half and after the fact, we had to remind ourselves however that it is just one game. Had Jose not had a bad night shooting, then perhaps the outcome would have been a little different. And had Toronto won, issues regarding wing play, depth, and rebounding surely would have been swept under the rug a bit more.
The season is only 5 games old and although as fans we wonder whether Gerald Wallace or Al Harrington might be able to solve what feels like a glaring hole at the three, at this moment it’s important to remember that a lot can go on in a season and winning fixes, or at least masks, a lot of problems. That premise makes this upcoming Bobcats game such an important one.
Before I launch into previewing Toronto’s next game on Sunday, I gotta say that after watching Atlanta play last night, I’m feeling a bit stupid for thinking they’d struggle to get into that last playoff spot in the East.
Not only has the entire team improved (how about some of Joe Johnson’s Kobe-esque baskets last night???), but the acquisitions of Mo Evans and Flip Murray are perhaps the most slept-on of the off-season. On many teams, these two simply don’t fit and become spare parts (see their times at Orlando and Cleveland.) However with this Atlanta team, one that lacks ANY sort of bench depth, these two can simply be let loose to make the most of their talents.
With Murray that means scoring and he absolutely torched Toronto last night.
Evans was no slouch himself and 3-point shooting aside, provides some nice defensive intensity as well.
It was a bit scary to see these two have their way with even some of the Raptors’ starters and even former HQ draft prospect fave Solomon Jones had a solid game off the pine; his nine rebounds were more than the number pulled down by either Bosh or O’Neal.
So the question is, if Flip and Mo are dropping 31 on you off the bench, what are Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace going to do?
These are the next two swingmen that Toronto will face in Charlotte tomorrow afternoon and the Raptors better be ready.
The Bobcats have shown some fight this season under new coach Larry Brown and while sit at 2-3 so far on the year, they’re coming off an impressive 92 to 89 win over the New Orleans Hornets.
Before getting to our "3 Keys" for this match however, let’s kick off this year’s first edition of our "Blogging with the Enemy" series. This past week I spoke with Brett of Queen City Hoops in regards to the ‘Cats and here’s what he had to say:
1) RaptorsHQ: Perhaps the Bobcats biggest move this off-season was the hiring of coach Larry Brown. What was your take on the move and do you think his leadership can get this Cats team to the playoffs in the East?
Brett (QueenCity Hoops) - Going from an unproven rookie coach to a hall of famer was like going...I can't even think of an apt metaphor, except to say that it was a dramatic upgrade. While the roster may not be perfectly suited for Larry Brown Basketball, with its collection of jump shooters and not-defenders (aside from Emeka and Crash), it was still the best the Bobcats could have done. The early results look good - aside from the losses. The team seems to be buying into the new system, passing up early shot-clock jumpers for drives and extra passes. Defensively...it at least looks like they are trying - there is still a lot of improvement to be made. As for the playoffs, I would have to say that without Larry Brown (or a comparable talent on the sideline) this group of players would have no shot. They are just too short - on talent and in height. But with LB, well, I am still holding out hope for the time being.
2) RaptorsHQ: Talk a bit about the direction you feel this team is headed in in general; did you think that passing on Lopez AND Bayless last draft was just another in the long line of curious personnel decisions by Jordan and co?
Brett (QueenCity Hoops) - My jaw dropped on draft night when the Augustin pick was announced. And nothing he has done so far has made me change my mind. When you have a chance to take a 5'11" shot-happy point guard in the top 10 - he better be Allen Iverson 2.0. For a team that is weak defensively as it is, getting smaller was an interesting decision. I don't want to talk about it anymore, it frustrates me too much still.
3) Give us your keys for a Bobcats’ victory tomorrow and how you see the clubs matching up.
Brett (QueenCity Hoops) - Chris Bosh comes down with the flu? Seriously, the Raptors (and Bosh in particular) have seemed to have the Bobcats number the last couple of years.
It is the match-up of strength on strength - Emeka and Bosh - but it is no contest. Bosh's versatility makes him a very difficult cover and the Charlotte "bigs" struggle with big men on the perimeter. But if I have to come up with something...
-Off shooting night for Bosh
-Bobcats have to put in maximum effort on the glass - everyone needs to be
hitting the defensive glass, not just Emeka and Gerald as is often the case
(looking at you J-Rich).
-Ball control - the Bobcats are still adjusting to LB's offensive schemes, so giving away possessions is killer. In the same vein, ending their opponent's possessions with out allowing shot attempts is useful when you are under-sized. Bosh and O'Neal are both averaging close to 3 turnovers a game, so the Cats need to try and force the action here.
A big thanks to Brett for the inside scoop on his club and you can check out Queencityhoops.com later today for more discussion between us, this time on the Raptors’ side of things.
So with that, how does Toronto end their two-game losing streak tomorrow?
1) Stop Dribble Penetration – This is absolutely killed the Raps last night as when Bibby, Johnson and even Murray were able to get into the paint, it opened things up for their high-octane shooters and even low-post players. Charlotte has similar players in terms of their one-on-one abilities and it’s imperative that Toronto does a better job of keeping their men in front of them. Or at least give AP some help. Last night Parker was essentially trying to guard the whole team himself at times and got into early foul trouble quite quickly. I liked Mitchell’s attempts at shaking things up late in the game but I’m admittedly still a bit mystified as to why Joey Graham isn’t getting some more run. And while Hassan Adams’ shoes seemed to be covered in oil yesterday evening, I’d like to see more of him as well.
The bottom line is that the Bobcats are ninth in the league in free-throw attempts while Toronto is 19th. Charlotte’s 31 trips to the line last night against New Orleans was one of the key reasons they got the win and the Raptors can’t let that happen tomorrow afternoon.
2) Get on the Glass – Are we starting to sound like a broken record here? Again last night the Raptors lost the battle of the boards and while it wasn’t by much, O’Neal and Bosh need some help. Jermaine only had four rebounds last night but part of this is because when he’s not skying for the rebound, he’s got his body on his man keeping him from getting there. If you watched him closely last night you saw lots of examples of this where either he or Bosh tried to shield their men from the hoop to give their other front-court partner a lane to the rim for the rebound.
The problem is on long rebounds.
Right now Jose is trying to get in the mix, but his size makes that tough so Moon and Parker need to be more of a factor in these situations. Parker does a fare job but at times just doesn’t have the quickness and athleticism to get there first. On long rebounds, it’s not simply a matter of positioning as a high enough bounce may simply go to the more athletic player.
That’s where Jamario comes in. Moon had one, and I repeat one, solid rebound last night, an offensive board that was only his second of the evening. This is just not acceptable for a player with his hops and he simply needs to do a better job of mixing it up in traffic and knowing where his man is.
Charlotte has plenty of guys who can go up and grab the ball out of the air so this should be a good test…not to mention that Charlotte is only grabbing about 37 boards a game, good for fourth-worst in the league.
The worst however – Toronto unfortunately.
3) Play to Your Strengths – One of our readers commented on the fact that Toronto’s swagger seems to have worn off and I couldn’t agree more. Even against Detroit the team seemed to have the confidence to come back and sure enough they did make a run in the third quarter.
However last night the club just looked defeated as soon as it got down by double digits. Yes, the Hawks’ constant barrage of 3-pointers was probably demoralizing, but it’s not like Toronto can’t do the same thing on their side. Jason Kapono, Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon are three of the best in the league and the team needs to show more fight in these situations. A 10 point deficit shouldn’t become mentally a 30 point hole for this team and this brings me to my final point.
What I was most disappointed by last night more than anything, was the fact that Toronto let Atlanta play to its strengths, and yet did not do the same thing themselves. The Hawks used their athleticism and individual abilities to create space, get to the rim and score in the paint. The Raptors don’t have the personnel to do that but do run a deadly inside-outside game. However that never really materialized. The Raptors should have pounded the ball inside on every possession, especially with JO going so well offensively, and then forced Atlanta to adjust.
Make no mistake about it, this is how Toronto is going to win games this year with the present personnel.
Hopefully Sunday will have Toronto getting back to that formula, resulting in a much-needed W.