Courtside: Raptors-Hawks Report
The Atlanta Hawks soared into town last night boasting the best record in the East. And they left with that mark intact after putting on a dominating offensive show in a 111-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
The Hawks are not only the youngest team in the NBA, but most of their key parts are veritable babes in the woods. What a tremendous core of young talent this club has amassed: Joe Johnson (25), Josh Childress (23), Shelden Williams (23), Zaza Pachulia (22), Josh Smith (20) and Marvin Williams (20). Much of the supporting cast is also young, including Salim Stoudamire (24) and Cedric Bozeman (23).
With the win, the Hawks moved to three games over .500 for the first time in seven and a half years. Hell, Smith was barely in middle school the last time Atlanta had a winning team. Last season, the Hawks got off to an 0-9 start. These clearly aren’t your father’s Hawks. From the looks of it, they’re not even your older brother’s Hawks.
While I find it difficult to imagine this team will maintain its pace, or even make the playoffs for that matter (especially when other teams start taking the Hawks seriously), stranger things have happened. The team is actually starting to believe they’ll make the playoffs, and that’s often half the battle. But regardless of whether Atlanta is playoff bound or capable of snapping its streak of seven straight losing seasons this year, it’s a team on the rise and one that’s capable of giving anyone problems with its athleticism and skill.
As for the Raptors, the loss drops them back to a losing record of 2-3. Coach Sam Mitchell is considering lineup changes because in each of the five games so far, Toronto has gotten off to a slow start. Something’s got to give there.
Things don’t get any easier. The team now sets out on a five-game Western road trip starting Sunday in Sacramento and 17 of the Raptors’ next 23 games are away from the ACC. Thanks, schedule makers. The team better learn how to win on the road — pronto.
Observations from last night’s contest:
- The Hawks finally added a point guard this year in Speedy Claxton, but the injury-prone guard is out with knee woes. Bozeman — not Tyronn Lue — started in Claxton’s place. Lue is a tremendous player, but seems amazingly averse to starting. His numbers as a starter vs. coming off the bench suggest he’s simply just far more comfortable as a second-unit player.
- Johnson has arrived this season. As good as he was last season, he is a truly dominant player now, one capable of taking over a game. If you want to beat Atlanta, you have to keep Johnson under control. The Raps couldn’t do it last night, as he went off for a season-high 34 points and showed an ability to hurt the opposition in so many ways. For instance, he uses screens brilliantly to get open looks. How about eight boards and five assists as well? And for those in FG percentage leagues, you’ve got to love Johnson’s 12-for-20 shooting performance. Forget about his 31.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 5.4 APG. Johnson is a leader now. And when your leader is going as well as he is, the rest of the team will follow. With Boris Diaw looking incapable of matching last year’s breakout, this deal looks very good for the Hawks. Johnson has now scored at least 25 points in every one of the first five games, tying a franchise record held by Luke Hudson and Bob Pettit.
- By the way, on top of everything else, Johnson is also providing to be an extremely durable player. He’s played in 363 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the NBA. The current leader? Toronto’s Morris Peterson, at 365 in a row. With all these ironmen around, it feels like we’re in Hawaii. Except I don’t have a Mai Tai in my hand. Nor do I have my arm around a lovely tanned beauty wearing a coconut bra (she’s wearing the coconuts, not me). Oh, and it’s cold out. Otherwise, there’s a real Hawaiian feel in the air.
- Smith is an absolute beast. He poured in a career-high 29 points (20 in the second half when the Raps finally realized that you have to double-team Johnson) and is equally capable of producing highlight-reel power slams as he is hitting a back-breaking three-ball from downtown. Smith also filled up the stat sheet, getting his customary seven boards but also dishing five dimes. His previous best was 28 points on April 15.
- Toronto put itself in trouble right from the get-go. The Raps came out with no intensity in the first quarter and before they knew what hit them, they were down by a big deficit. We’re back to the first-quarter problem of allowing the opponent to sink easy buckets. Atlanta shot 57.1 per cent in the opening quarter, helping bury the Raps right off the bat. The Raps can’t buy a bucket, shooting just 26 per cent to start. Johnson and Smith, with nine points apiece, lead the way as Atlanta grabs a commanding 28-15 lead.
- Less then two minutes into the second quarter, the Hawks have already scored 14 points in the paint. Where’s the Raptors’ defense? For the game, the Hawks shot 50 per cent. You won’t win many games allowing your opponent to do that.
- Peterson shook off a substandard effort against Philly on Wednesday with a strong game. He scored 10 points in his first 10 minutes and was getting open for good looks. It was great to see him showing his patented hustle, rolling around the floor for loose balls. The Raps need Peterson supplying strong secondary scoring, and so far this season, he hadn’t been doing so. As we mentioned, there’s talk that the Raps may do some lineup switching, so Peterson could find himself coming off the bench if he doesn’t pick things up.
- Joey Graham, a good candidate to earn more PT if the Raps tinker with the lineup, is meeting his goal of supplying energy and excitement off the bench. Thanks to the high-tempo offense, the starters on this club will need plenty of spelling, and Graham has been doing a fantastic job of that lately. While he didn’t do much on the stat sheet last night, he is playing much-improved D this year and that will continue to earn the soph his minutes.
- The bench was again a strength for Toronto, outscoring its counterparts by nine. In the second quarter, the Raps’ second unit was instrumental in helping cut a 14-point deficit to a more manageable number.
- This is where Atlanta falls short, I think. Getting Claxton and Marvin Williams back will sure help, but the Hawks don’t yet have the overall team depth capable of being a contender. Of course, this is the East, a conference in which last season’s two best teams (Detroit and New Jersey) didn’t exactly rely on second-unit scoring. The exception, of course, is Childress, one of the league’s better sixth men. He poured in 16 off the bench. Love the ‘fro, love the game.
- The Hawks had the edge on the glass, outrebounding Toronto 49-40. Shelden Williams pitched in nicely in that area, pulling down seven boards in just 15 minutes. At this point, that’s his primary value and his ticket to PT.
- Speaking of rebounding, with apologies to Frank Sinatra, Chris Bosh is looking like the Chairman of the Boards. Late in the first half, he already has five, but he’s struggling with his shot. He shoots much better in the second half and goes crazy on the glass, finishing with 19 points and 17 rebounds. He now leads the association with 13.6 RPG. Wow. Bosh looks like a man possessed this season.
- Anthony Parker is showing a nice passing touch. I love how his game is so complete. There’s no one thing that makes him a star, but no glaring weakness either.
- Raps pull within two with 7:45 to play. But like I said, these aren’t the same old Hawks who made an art form of blowing fourth-quarter leads. Courtesy of two-thirds of the J, J & J Boys (Childress being the third member after Johnson and Smith), they promptly went on a 17-6 run to ice the game.
- T.J. Ford had a sluggish start (didn’t every Raptor except for MoPete?), going scoreless in the first quarter and managing just two in the second. But he looks great in the second half, and had 10 points in the third quarter with two minutes to play.
- Andrea Bargnani manages four points (on 2-of-3 shooting) and a couple of boards, but piles up the fouls and plays just nine minutes. He sits on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Like I have said repeatedly, patience is the key with the number one overall pick.
- Jose Calderon looked fantastic again last night, providing a great lift for the team in the fourth quarter as the Raptors cut into Atlanta’s lead. He has really improved this season, looking like a completely different player. The confidence is obvious and I wonder how much of that is because of his experiences on the FIBA Gold-medal winning Spanish team and the addition of compatriot Jorge Garbajosa this season. Whatever the reason, it’s great to see. Calderon’s shot is night and day compared to last season when he was incredibly gun shy.
- Fred Jones is great off the bench last night. What a shock. I just dumped Jones in the pool because his low shooting percentage was too hard to swallow. So he drains 7-of-13 for 17 points before fouling out. Thanks, Fred. In his stead, I picked up surprising Spurs’ centre Fabricio Oberto. You better go crazy next week, Fabricio!
- Raps begin the fourth on fire, draining their first five shots. We need to see this touch earlier in the game, guys.
- Lue may hate starting, but he’s a solid player, and he also knows how to play D.
- Speaking of D, Parker is on Johnson and he also spent much of Wednesday on Allen Iverson. He seems to be getting the key defensive assignments that used to go to Peterson. In theory, this should help Peterson score more, as he’s not worn out on the defensive side of the floor.
- Is it just me or with his new full beard does Hawk coach Mike Woodson have a Gil Scott Heron, circa mid-’70s, thing going on?