As unlikely as it seemed back in, say, December, this Raptors-Hawks matchup is now deathly important. All Eastern Conference matchups are important for the Raptors, they should win them all. But this game, with the Raptors in fourth, and the Hawks in fifth, feels just an extra ounce of important. Toronto likes its home court advantage, thank you very much. (And yes, I know we always lose Game 1 at home anyway, gtfo.)
The Hawks are just, kind of, there, man. If we were trying to come up with a franchise identity for them, that would be it. Just there. The Hawks have been a team that’s been just there since Michael Jordan was dunking them into oblivion in the mid-90s. It’s been quite a run.
The Raptors are not the mid-90s Bulls, but it would be cool if they could keep them in their place. Atlanta is not ascendant, they’re not descendant, they’re just there. And as such, I’d prefer if they just got out of the way for the Raps.
Here are three things to watch and enjoy in this one:
Keep the Door Shut
The Raptors offense has been, let’s say, shaky for stretches of the last seven games. Minus Kyle Lowry, as both a playmaker and high-volume efficient shooter, the Raptors have had to look to DeMar DeRozan to pour in the points. And when that hasn’t worked, they’ve scratched and clawed and gotten buckets where they could — Serge Ibaka has been consistent, Jonas Valanciunas put up a gem on Wednesday, everyone else has tried their best to chip in.
The story for Toronto has been the revamped and upgraded defense. With Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, plus the usual mainstays Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, and, until recently, DeMarre Carroll, the Raps have looked different on that end. In the past seven games they’ve also been ranked ninth in defensive efficiency (103.9 DRTG). On the season, they’re 15th, so that’s already something of an improvement.
Tonight they take on the Hawks, or considered numerically, the 24th best offense in the league. In still other words, the Raptors should be able to clamp this team down. Let’s make it happen, guys.
The Jonas Repeat?
Against the Hawks this season, Valanciunas hasn’t been particularly noticeable. The first meeting was such an insane blowout (which the Raps won 128-84, comically), we forgot that Jonas put up a 2 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes. The second one, a loss for Toronto, was much closer, but in that one Jonas squeaked in a mere 11 and 6. But that’s all history: all we remember right now are Valanciunas’ 25-13 line from Wednesday night.
The question now of course is: Can JV do it again? There are things working his favour here. I’m of the opinion that Dwight Howard is butt, so giving JV a chance to go at him seems prudent. Also, the Raptors have to, have to, see that there is at least some merit for giving Valanciunas a look on offense. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when Jonas is getting touches and getting involved, he gets more locked in on defense. The Hawks have a decent matchup against the Raps — Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha can take turns on DeRozan, Paul Millsap and Ibaka are going to go to war — but I like Jonas’ chances. Let’s watch.
Saying Hello to Old Friends
There are three dudes to watch on the Hawks. First, Paul Millsap, or as we like to call him in Toronto: the one who got away. Second, Ersan Ilyasova, or as he’s known in Toronto: an unholy terror from the depths of some fresh hell we’re not even able to describe. And third, Jose Calderon, or as he’s known in Toronto: Jose! We love Jose! Let’s all enjoy saying hello to Jose (as the Raptors crush the Hawks).
No word yet on whether the Hawks will enjoy saying hello to their old friend Carroll. As of press time, he’s been through practice and looks to be up and about, but the last reports list him as “questionable.” Then again.... aren’t we all?
Where to Watch: TSN2, 8pm EST