It’s all about building winning habits down the stretch, and unfortunately for the Atlanta Hawks, the Toronto Raptors look to not only build on their four game win streak but complete the season sweep of the inconsistent Hawks and continue their winning ways as March rolls on.
The Raptors are also looking to put their East-leading 45-17 (and league-leading 26-5 home) record to the test tonight to expand their lead on the Celtics. To do that, expect Dwane Casey to continue to explore the Raptors’ small forward depth, spreading minutes between, Malcolm Miller, Norman Powell, or whomever manages to keep Kent Bazemore’s streaky scoring in check.
As for Bazemore, coming off a nice weekend of rest, and the rest of the Hawks, Atlanta ranks in the bottom five in both turnovers and defensive rating, so if Toronto sticks to the script tonight, playing solid D and moving the ball on offense — the hallmarks of their season thus far — the ACC crowd will enjoy yet another win.
As is the case with the league’s best teams, the Raptors should expect the best effort from not only Atlanta — as they played hard in a 5-point loss to the Warriors on Friday — but every team they face the rest of the way. Such are the hardships of the Raptors enjoying some hard-earned respect around the league as they sit perched atop the Eastern Conference.
Here are the details and some things to watch for in tonight’s game.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 7pm EST
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Malcolm Miller, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry
Atlanta - John Collins, Taurean Prince, Dewayne Dedmon, Tyler Dorsey, Dennis Schroder
Toronto - OG Anunoby
Atlanta - Malcolm Delaney, Antonius Cleveland, Okaro White, Sheldon Mac, DeAndre’ Bembry, Tyler Cavanaugh
What’s Up At the Three?
With OG Anunoby out, even though he's a rookie, there are going to be questions for the Raptors at the three-spot. He's been the starter for the team since the second month of the season, and, despite a recent shooting slump, has fit in exceedingly well.
But now the Raptors are trying things. First, on Friday night's win against the Wizards, the team went with Norman Powell. His line of zero points (on 0-of-2 shooting) plus one rebound and one assist didn't move the needle much. Then, on Sunday, Malcolm Miller made the surprising start. His 0-for line wasn’t much better (in fact, it was the same, minus the assist). Keep in mind the Raps also have C.J. Miles, who has been lights out from the field lately, and helped Toronto's bench unit to become one of the best in the league. While Casey probably doesn't want to break that flow up, it'll be interesting to see where he goes with his lineups tonight against a bad Hawks team.
Strong Close Out
Bad or not, the Raptors still have to play their game and, ideally, win. That means a consistent effort for all 48 minutes. It proved to be a tad difficult on Sunday, as the Hornets hung around, but against an even more hopeless Hawks team, it's on the Raptors to close things out strong.
So far this season, Toronto has had no problem against the Hawks, relying mostly on their bench to blow games wide open. They've won by margins of 15, 13 and 34, and often these games have felt even less close than that. Still, as mentioned, every team is gunning for the top team, and the Raptors are just that.
When you add in Toronto's penchant for late-game execution struggles, it's best not to get too ahead of ourselves here.
The Hawks Are Trying To Lose
Still, let's end on this note: the Hawks aren't exactly trying to win games here. They're not in the driver's seat as far as the league's annual tank-athon usually goes (that honour has to go to the advanced efforts of the Suns and the Grizzlies) but, uh, Bazemore missed Sunday's game due to "rest" and the bad luck injury bug seems to be hitting the team pretty hard.
As per usual, March is a funny time of year for some teams in the NBA. While it felt like the recently the number of tanking teams was on the decline, this season brought on a revival of the age-old practice. With that, all we can say is: good luck to Atlanta, the Raptors will certainly try to help in your losing endeavours.