Where To Watch: TSN 2, 7:30 p.m. EST
Long, long ago (November 26) in a land far, far away (northern Georgia), the Toronto Raptors beat the Atlanta Hawks by a score of 126 to 115. It was a simpler time, when DeMar DeRozan led the team in scoring with 27 points and a balanced approach keyed Toronto to one of their bigger wins of the season.
Since then, DeRozan has missed almost two months with injury, Toronto's balance has floundered somewhat, and the Hawks started firing on all cylinders. Despite DeRozan’s return on Wednesday, these are two different teams than when they met on November 26, at least in terms of confidence. The Atlanta Hawks are 24-2 since that loss to the Raptors, and have won ten games straight, their longest streak in 17 years. They're now four games clear of competition in the Eastern Conference. What’s been their secret?
Well, actually, it’s been a formula that the Raptors have strived toward - "three and D". The Hawks are shooting a stunning 46 per cent from three-point range in their last six games, knocking down double digits in triples in each of those games. On the other end, their 96.7 points per game allowed is good for second in the league on defence. They defend the three as well as they shoot it, which could be problematic for the occasionally shot-happy guards of Toronto, allowing just a 31 per cent mark from three for their opponent. They also force turnovers – 17 or more in eight of the last ten games.
The Raptors, meanwhile, have a bit of momentum on their side. DeRozan’s return on Wednesday was surprisingly smooth, as the former All-Star led the team in points and relieved a fatigued Kyle Lowry from some of the weight on both ends. That win came though against the Philadelphia 76ers. Tonight, DeRozan and the team’s continuity will really be tested against the Hawks, who have the best record in the NBA against the NBA’s top teams (visual courtesy NBA TV, from yesterday).
If you’re a standings-watcher, a third place finish in the Eastern Conference could mean Toronto plays Cleveland or a Jason Kidd-coached Milwaukee team in the first round. It may be January, but games like this are ones you look back on as the spring months play out.
What will you be watching for?