As the NBA season approaches the halfway point, the Toronto Raptors can still credibly think of themselves as part of the Eastern Conference elite – which isn’t as good as it sounds, but whatever.
They are 26-13 and have a 9.5-game lead in the Atlantic Division. Barring some kind of collapse, they’ll have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
All good things.
But it’s getting a little ugly around here. After the Atlanta Hawks decimated them 110-89 at the Air Canada Centre the Raptors were concerned enough about losing seven of their last nine that they had a team meeting to address slide.
“We had a long talk [after the game],” said Raptors forward James Johnson. “It will stay internal but we just got a little over confident and started taking to heart that we’re a good team and we haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
“It’s all lack of detail right now. We’re just a little over-confident. As long as we get back to that we’re still in a good place, still third in our conference, first in our division, but it can go south right away and we don’t want that.”
They have a lot to lose. The East is an open book at the moment, waiting for someone to write their own ending. The Cleveland Cavaliers are adrift. The Chicago Bulls are struggling at home and trail Toronto in the conference standings.
And even if the Atlanta Hawks rolled into the ACC as the hottest team in the NBA, winners of 24 of their last 26 starts, it wasn’t like they're some kind of dynasty. If anything they’re a more generic brand of contender than the Raptors. Besides, Toronto has already beaten them twice this season.
“It’s wide open for the taking,” Casey said of the Eastern Conference possibilities before the game. “That’s what I told our guys. Just don’t be satisfied with winning the division. Let’s fight and claw and scratch and try and get (something) better.”
Like we said, that was before the game.
After the game?
A recalibration may be in order. Either the Hawks are really good -– like NBA champion good, which they may be -- or the Raptors have sprung some leaks that are badly in need of patching.
Both explanations are absolutely in play. The Hawks looked every inch a Finals contender in a game that was a blowout midway through the first quarter and never deviated. The Hawks may represent a new(ish) model for NBA team building. Head coach Mike Budenholzer has based his program on the San Antonio Spurs where he was an assistant coach for 17 years and has, at the very least, proven that good basketball can travel.
The Hawks/Spurs approach -– where a deep team of good if not great players (we’re talking late career Tim Duncan here) completely committed to ball movement and team play has proven to be incredibly effective and now transportable. It might be the ultimate antidote to teams operating under the increasingly restrictive NBA salary cap. Teams built around a ‘Big Three’ have been the ideal in the NBA since the days of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish, but now it’s harder than ever to keep elite threesomes together (Miami) and even more difficult to surround them with the necessary depth (Cleveland).
The superstar-free Spurs –- and Hawks -– solution is to pass the ball. And pass the ball. And pass the ball. And then take advantage of wide-open driving lanes or knock down wide-open threes. The Hawks pass the ball 326 times a game, fifth in the NBA (the Raptors pass the ball 281 times, which is 27th), and they pass with purpose. They are second in the NBA in assists and lead the NBA in the so-called hockey assists – the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the score.
“It’s impressive,” said Casey. “They’re playing great basketball.”
They did Friday as they shot 61 percent from the floor and counted 30 assists on 42 field goals, while shooting 12-of-23 from the three-point line and had all five starters hit double figures.
Their effectiveness was only more evident in light of what has turned into a prolonged trough that the Raptors are having a hard time digging themselves out from.
Last night was more of the same: porous defence; lacklustre offence (42.7 percent from the floor; 19 turnovers and just 17 trips to the free throw line) that showed up early and stayed.
“I can’t say we’re not competing,” said Casey. “Whatever wall we hit, we have hit it and we got to get the sledgehammer and bust through it together.”
Casey may be been being careful to protect his guys. He emphasized that it was not a time for finger pointing, but Terrence Ross seems entirely lost at the moment. He has seven points in his past two games and was 1-of-8 last night, with more shots blocked than made.
And it’s not clear the Raptors were as competitive as Casey suggested. Regardless of who they were playing, there is no good reason that the Raptors gave up a wide-open lay-up to Al Horford on a bread-and-butter pick-and-roll as they did early in the first quarter or failed to have a man back to balance the floor and prevent an uncontested Hawks' layup after a DeMar DeRozan jumper shortly after.
Those basic breakdowns were even more costly when the Hawks began to demonstrate their full arsenal; be it double-digit passes on a single possession before hitting a wide-open three or blunting a DeRozan drive, out-letting the rebound to half-court in a flash and finding a streaking Korver for an uncontested three which he knocked down with ease.
The Raptors trailed by 26 points in the second half, entirely on merit.
The Raptors laboured for everything they got, with the likes of DeRozan (a bright spot in the second game since returning from injury with 25 points on 18 shots) and Lowry often pounding the air out of the ball to generate opportunities, while the Hawks made things look effortless, with the ball barely touching the floor on possession after possession.
“They are healthy, they all of their guys and they are moving the ball extremely well,” said DeRozan. “They are playing at a high level and you’ve to give them credit.”
The sum was two teams going in opposite directions. The Hawks have won 11 straight and are putting together as dominant a streak as has been seen in the NBA since the Miami Heat won 27 straight in 2012-13.
They have some problems. Their thumping at the hands of the Hawks goes on a growing list of signature defeats to quality opponents home, joining losses to Dallas, Chicago and Cleveland even before they dropped games to lightweights Charlotte and Detroit already during their six-game home stand that wraps up Sunday against New Orleans.
On paper things still look good. The Raptors are pace to win 54 games. They will have home court in the playoffs.
But on the floor? The Raptors aren’t looking like a good team. They saw one in Atlanta last night and the Raptors, for now, look nothing like that.