"I'm not envious, I'm impressed."
That was Raptors coach Dwane Casey discussing the surging Atlanta Hawks, pre-game. Earlier in the season, there were probably coaches in the league discussing the Raptors this way. But as of late, Toronto has been tumbling down the standings, losers of five of their last seven.
The seemingly unremarkable Hawks meanwhile have looked invincible. They've won 11 games in a row.
Many in Toronto were hoping tonight things would go differently. Instead, the narrative stayed flipped: the Hawks are now the Raptors of November and December. They are the underrated surprise of the Eastern Conference, and possibly, the entire NBA. They are, in short, for real.
Led by the definitely all-the-way-healthy All-Star Al Horford and his perfect 8-for-8, 22 point performance, the Hawks exhibited a balanced and disciplined attack from start to finish. All five starters scored in double figures, all of them save Horford (who had a toe-on-the-line two go down) hit at least one three-pointer. The team as a whole shot 61 percent.
The Raptors did what they could, chasing first Kyle Korver, then Jeff Teague, then a streaking Dennis Schroder. It seemed every time they mounted a run, the Hawks had answers. And by answers I mean, a barrage of more three pointers. Only DeMar DeRozan (25 points on 11-for-18 shooting) and James Johnson (17 points on 7-for-11 shooting) seemed ready for the test. Even the mighty Kyle Lowry seemed out of sorts. The second half got ugly quickly, and that was that.
"We had a long talk, it'll stay internal, but we just got a little overconfident," said Johnson after the game. So, words were said behind closed doors and presumably lessons were learned. The Raptors are not quite world beaters yet. Despite the euphoria of the opening months of the season, we know this now. And while Casey was quick post-game to say that we can't point the finger at any one thing, tonight it felt like the problems were elemental. What possible lesson could be gleaned from a loss like this?
Amir Johnson, after a massive ice-pack had been taken off his shoulder, summed it up best: "We need to score points to win."
What did you guys think of the game?