The surging (5-0) Toronto Raptors can claim a share of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a win over the slumping (0-5) Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
The Raptors improved to 13-6 on the season with an easy wire-to-wire 113-80 win over the Lakers at home on Friday night to move to within a half game of the Cavaliers who lost their third game in a row as they fell 111-105 to the Bulls in Chicago. Toronto now plays the rare at home back-to-back tonight and the biggest concern may be to not look past the Hawks to the rematch against Cleveland on Monday.
Atlanta started out the season at 10-5, but a left hip injury to All-Star Paul Millsap in Utah has sent a team that was already starting to slide into a tailspin. Millsap played through the pain in losses to the Jazz, Lakers and Warriors, but he was finally sat down in the Hawks last two games and he isn’t expected to play against Toronto.
On Friday night the Hawks were crushed 121-85 by the Pistons and have now lost eight of their last nine games. They have been outscored by their opponents 104.4 – 92.7 over this stretch, however, the Raptors need to be cautious as this team started the season at 9-2 and dominated their opposition 107.8 – 98.2 including big wins in Cleveland (110-106) and against the Bulls (115-107).
The Raptors, in contrast, have been red hot over their past five games, dominating their opponents 115 – 96.2 as their offense has been firing on all cylinders led by All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry who is averaging 22.6 points and shooting 62.9 percent from three-point range over that span.
DeMar DeRozan who was leading the NBA in scoring until recently has retouched reality during the winning streak averaging just 20.8 points over the past five games, however, even he is hitting on 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts and contributing 6 boards and 6 dimes per game as defenses have decided to get the ball out of his hands at any cost. That cost has been letting Lowry and the rest of the Raptors three-point threats see a lot of open looks and they’ve been sinking them at a 50 percent clip, so eventually opponents may decide it’s better to let DeRozan shoot again.
Head coach Dwane Casey continues to preach defense, but after giving up an average of 105.5 points per game prior to the winning streak, his charges have kept their opponents below that in each of the past five games. The result may still not be up to Casey’s standards (it never is), but at least the trend is finally in the right direction.
The Raptors have lost both ends of their two previous back-to-back sets this season, so they shouldn’t be overconfident.
If Toronto can claim this winnable game against the Hawks, they’ll improve to 14-6 and sit in a virtual tie with the idle 13-5 Cavaliers. Cleveland has already defeated Toronto at the Q and at the ACC this season, so expect the Raptors to be motivated on Monday.
Note: The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of a six game homestand and the ACC has been sold out for 101 consecutive games including the regular season and the playoffs. The streak began Nov. 11, 2014 vs Orlando and is the longest in franchise history.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.