On the court, the Toronto Raptors have outstripped the Atlanta Hawks this season, currently sitting three spots up in the standings and looking to go 2-0 in the season series when they tip-off tonight. In terms of overall trajectory, though, the latter looks to be just one step ahead of the former.
When the 2015 NBA Playoffs began last April, Atlanta entered the derby with a wonderful regular season record and a history of recent first-round failures. Led by the likes of Al Horford and Paul Millsap, the Hawks finally punched through, winning two series before being swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
You show me an honest Raptors fan, and I’ll show you a person who would lose their foam finger in a hurry to sign up for that deal in 2016.
The current Toronto core has been bounced in Round One each of the past two years, while Atlanta similarly endured three straight first-round exits from 2012 to 2014, the first of those coming after the team finished with .606 winning percentage during a lockout-shortened campaign. Last year’s version of the Hawks kicked things up a couple notches, finishing as the No. 1 seed in the East. A similar story is unfolding in Raptorland, where the team is tracking the second seed in the conference and is on pace to post the best record in team history by a substantial margin.
So, having seen a version of this movie before, what does Horford think of Toronto’s chances to mirror the path taken by his own club?
“I feel like they have the tools,” he says. “They have the players.”
If you’re hoping Horford had a magical elixir to pass along that can propel teams over the hump, we’ve got bad news. The good news, though, is that by positioning itself so high in the conference, Toronto is already laying much of the groundwork for post-season happiness. Yes, the Raptors have entered each of the past two playoffs with home-court advantage in the first round, but this year they figure to have it for at least two rounds should they get the desired result in the opening series.
“That’s a big deal,” Horford says of playing more games in friendly surroundings.
As for what it takes, specifically, to parlay winter wins into springtime success, both Horford and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer indicated clubs learn over time to stay a little calmer when the heat us on. And, tactically, being a one-trick pony won’t get it done. It’s why the Raptors have work to do in being adaptable and figuring out how to make in-game adjustments—predictable squads get sniffed out when facing the same opponent every other night.
“In a seven-game series, if you just show the same look repetitively, it gets more and more difficult [to win],” says Budenholzer.
No matter where the Raptors finish in the standings this year—even the top spot that Atlanta occupied a season ago—many supporters will remain on edge, anxious to see if they can actually make the second-season gains this franchise and city is openly desperate for. But when it comes to entering a series with tense feelings, Budenholzer suggests the angst won’t be limited to the Six.
“I don’t think anybody is looking forward to playing them in the playoffs,” he says.