Don’t say no one saw this coming. The Toronto Raptors easily defeated the Hornets 92-87 to claim a franchise record 49th win and the Atlanta Hawks punted an 18 point lead in the third quarter to lose to the Bulls 91-85. The gift from the visitors gave Chicago third place in the Eastern Conference and means the first place Hawks avoid a likely second round matchup with the Bulls. Instead, the Hawks will get the winner between the fourth place Raptors and the fifth place Wizards in the second round.
The Hawks must have decided they wanted to play Toronto in the second round instead of Chicago as seldom used John Jenkins, Elton Brand and Austin Daye played the entire fourth quarter combining to go 0-8 from the field and scoring just 1 point. Reserves Mike Muscala and Shelvin Mack soaked up most of the remaining minutes and shot 4-10 to put up 9 points in a 13 point quarter. With this unit on the floor to close out the game, the Hawks went over 4 minutes without scoring a point to give up the lead and then only managed to score 7 points over the final 5 minutes of the game. The Bulls scored 21 points over the final 12 minutes to pull out the win.
It’s not like the Hawks were forced to go deep into their bench. No starter played more than 27.2 minutes and none in the fourth quarter. Al Horford had 14 points and 7 rebounds shooting 7-10 from the field in 22 minutes. Jeff Teague shot 5-11 for 10 points in 22.7 minutes and Dennis Schroder had come off the bench to score 21 points in 16.7 minutes, but he was quickly sat down in the fourth quarter after hitting an early three-ball. The Hawks got what they wanted in this game in every sense of the word – Practice, rest and no possibility of seeing the Bulls again before the Eastern Conference Finals.
In Toronto the Raptors lead by as many as 17 points and never really lost control of this contest from the tip. Head coach Dwane Casey stuck with a tight nine man rotation, only giving Lou Williams the night off to rest. Kyle Lowry worked on his long ball and defense, finding the range from beyond the arc six times as he scored a game high 26 points. Jonas Valanciunas practiced his post moves on Bismack Biyombo and scored 18 points on 9-11 shooting. The Raptors got in the work they needed at both ends of the court in preparation for the postseason.
Prior to the game, there was a story that the fifth place Wizards Paul Pierce had said the Raptors don’t have ‘it’ which created a lot of interest from the Raptors players. At the end of the Raptors-Hornets game, the Bulls were still playing and DeMar DeRozan suggested Pierce had better hope for the right outcome or he’d find out what the ‘it’ is.
“Paul Pierce, he always got to say something,” DeRozan said. “He said something last year. He just got to say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he says. He just better to hope that Chicago – however it has to work – win or something so he won’t see what the it is.”
The Raptors played against Pierce (with the Nets) last year in the first round of the playoffs. There is nothing like a genuine rivalry between players to spice up a playoff series and we have the Hawks to thank for making it happen.