The Atlanta Hawks handled the Toronto Raptors in OT less than a week ago. In contrast to the funereal atmosphere in Philips Arena, the Air Canada Centre will be jumping as the playoff-bound Raps attempt to bounce back from that surreal defeat on Friday night. The Hawks had their 5-game winning streak snapped at home by the Pelicans, yet still cling to the #8 seed in the East. The surging Brooklyn Nets are now just one game behind the Raps in the loss column. If Toronto is going to win the Atlantic Division title, and the #3 seed, it must win this game. In short, we’ve got two highly motivated teams ready to do battle.
Paul Millsap put up his first-ever career triple-double against the Raps, with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. The Hawks needed one of their top-line players to step into the scoring void created by the season-ending arm injury to Al Horford. Millsap, despite being small for his position of power forward, has been that player. He’s a quiet contributor whose “columns are always full” (as the coaches say) and who will have a profound impact on this game. Pero Antic has been the centre since Horford’s departure, and is better than you’d expect for a backup. The Raps got him in foul difficulty last week, and would love to do it again. Jeff Teague, their speedy point guard, is a giant headache. He can pull the ball on the floor and get his shot off against anyone, regardless of size. He’s Atlanta’s assist leader, and will give Toronto difficulty in the two-man game. Kyle Korver, the 3-point making machine, is questionable for this game due to back spasms. I expect him to play, well. Shelvin Mack gets the start at shooting guard. DeMar DeRozan should be able to back him down and shoot over him, time and again. DeMarre Carroll is at small forward, and won’t warrant a great deal of defensive attention.
While the Hawks deserve credit for not quitting despite their injury woes, they were a beatable team even at full strength. The Raps are healthy, except for Patrick Patterson and the normal aches of this time of year, and will beat Atlanta if they:
- don’t lose Korver. He could teach courses on how to get open just as the pass arrives for him to get off a perfect-form 3-ball. Terrence Ross must resist the urge to help on D; the Hawks want him to do that.
- stay with Teague. Kyle Lowry, don’t gamble. If Teague wants to go to the hoop, stay in front of him, and wait for the big men to arrive.
- get Jonas Valanciunas some early touches. Horford’ backup, Gustavo Ayon, is on the shelf following shoulder surgery. Should Antic get in early foul trouble, the Hawks will have to double our big man. JV can then dish to Amir Johnson in the lane, or kick it out to open corner shooters.
The Raps don’t usually have two poor shooting games in a row. Toronto wins this one 105-94.