Gameday: Raptors @ Hawks, the Return of Lou Williams

Title: Gameday: Raptors @ Hawks, the Return of Lou Williams
Date: November 26, 2014
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This Raptors pre-game broke down the Raptors’ Nov. 26 contest against the Hawks.

The Toronto Raptors aren’t at home. That’s an odd thing to come to terms with Wednesday considering 10 of the team’s first 14 games have been at the ACC, but that’s a reality. They’re in Atlanta, tipping off at 7:30 p.m. on Sportsnet 360, trying to beat the 7-5 Hawks for the second time.

You’ll recall back on Oct. 29, the Raptors beat the Hawks 109-102 in the season opener for both teams. The game wasn’t quite that close most of the way, with a shaky Raptors defense letting the Hawks climb back into it late. The Raptors relied on a rebounding and turnover edge (surprise on that last one!) to make up a major gap in shooting efficiency, and that will probably be the case again – Atlanta ranks sixth in effective field goal percentage to 13th for the Raptors, but the Raptors turn the ball over far less, get to the line way more, and generally rebound better. That’s going to be the book on the Raptors most nights, anyway, with ball control and free throws carrying them to the league’s No. 2 offense so far.

The Hawks shouldn’t be taken lightly though. This is a team that some picked to fight for the third seed in the East and most assumed were, at worst, a potential first round opponent for the Raptors. There’s a lot of talent here, and a smart, fun system employed by head coach Mike Budenholzer. Kyle Korver is a nightmare to defend, Paul Millsap is exactly the kind of big man who has given the Raptors trouble this year, and it’s unclear through three career meetings if Jonas Valanciunas can handle Al Horford inside. This isn’t going to be easy.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Robby Kalland, formerly of Hawks.com, currently of Hardwood Paorxysm and now killing that college football beat.

Blake: Now that you’re Mr. SEC, has your love for Horford grown even more? How’s he looked so far this season, after missing most of last year with a torn pectoral muscle? The team’s been significantly worse with him on the floor.

Robby: On offense, he looks fine. He’s got his rhythm back with the mid-range shot and he’s added a corner three to his repertoire. He’s starting to get his timing with Jeff Teague back on the pick-and-roll and making better rim runs. However, the team has been horrible on defense with Horford on the floor, which is surprising considering he’s always been excellent on that end. It seems like he’s still not there as far as knowing where he should be positionally against pick-and-rolls — he gets caught hedging too high a lot. I think it will get there with more reps — he didn’t play much of the preseason or camp — and I think the defensive side is where it will take the most time to get right.

Blake: It’s exhausting just to watch Korver move without the ball. Obviously, a key tenet of Budenholzer’s offense is finding creative ways to free Korver, and despite his reputation, 52.1 percent of his field goal attempts are threes without a defender within four feet. Have any opponents been effective keeping him in check, and is there a hope here beyond just fighting through screen after screen after screen?

Robby: There’s no hope. The O-Rtg differential when Korver is on the floor compared to off is +17.4, which is just insane. If you try to guard him with one man, he’s going to run him into the ground and get open looks. If you try what a lot of teams have and commit help to Korver’s man, you leave yourself open to cuts from the screeners to the basket and driving lanes for Teague and Dennis Schröder. You really just hope it’s an off night for Korver and you try to do your best to force him out of the corners and off the three-point line as much as possible, but in the end he’s going to get his.

Blake: #FreeAdreianPayne

Robby: I love Adreian, but unfortunately it’s hard to see him getting minutes anytime soon. He dominated in his one game in the D-League, but he’s just not quite there offensively. If Mike Scott continues to struggle offensively, we could see Payne get some minutes, but for now it looks like he’ll be inactive for most nights in the foreseeable future.

Blake: Other than Pero Antic, the bench has largely been atrocious based on on/off court data. Has there been any thought of flipping Horford and Antic to allow Horford to prop up a struggling second unit? Are you concerned the Raptors’ effective bench will be the difference here?

Robby: I think there needs to be some lineup changes made. Staggering Horford and Millsap’s minutes would help, I’m not sure that means starting Antic, but at the least they shouldn’t be off the court for long stretches at the same time. Getting DeMarre Carroll back should help in allowing Bud to shuffle up the lineups a bit because he can balance Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha’s minutes. I think the Raptors’ bench will certainly cause some problems for the Hawks like they did in Toronto in the opener.

Blake: Lou Williams and Bebe Nogueira for The Nonguaranteed Contract Of John Salmons Which Can Be Waived To Clear Room To Sign Sefolosha, who says no?

Robby: It’s funny watching people freak out about Lou Williams’ start for Toronto and reacting to this trade. Lou didn’t work in Atlanta for a variety of reasons. The knee injury was unfortunate and he wasn’t the same player after that here, but even before that it was clear that he didn’t fit with what Coach Bud wanted to do. Lou loves jumpers — particularly fond of step-in twos which drove Bud crazy — and he wants the ball in his hands a lot. I think being here helped Lou learn to play better off the ball, but it’s clear where he’s at his best is when he can handle it and create, which he’s given the opportunity to do in Toronto. I’m very happy for Lou’s success in Toronto because he’s a fun player when he’s cooking like he is. That said, I don’t think anyone in or around the Hawks organization that was here for his three years looks back and is upset with that trade. It just didn’t work.

All of those great answers from Robby, and still, all I can think about is Korver popping open in a corner, over and over again. He went 6-of-7 from long range in the opener and has shot 42.7 percent from long range in 35 career games against the Raptors. The guy is a terror, and I really hope Terrence Ross is well rested and James Johnson’s ankle is feeling better.

Robby’s note about Horford’s defense could prove a key element for the Raptors. While it’s not necessarily safe to assume a good defender will continue to play poorly, getting Horford in the pick-and-roll, especially with how well Valanciunas is playing offensively, should be the team’s first look to open the game. Horford foul trouble creates it’s own problems with Antic checking in and the Hawks playing five shooters together like they did for most of last season, but you take that if it chases Horford off the floor or lets you exploit his discomfort with the current system. As has been the case often of late, Valanciunas is the key piece at both ends Wednesday.

Elsewhere, the Raptors have edges. Teague is a fine player but Kyle Lowry is Kyle Lowry. The Hawks have good defensive wings to slow DeMar DeRozan but nobody who can score with him. Korver is an edge at the other wing spot, as is Millsap at the four. The bench, again, is almost always an edge. A lot comes down to what Valanciunas can provide, and just how thoroughly Lowry can dominate. He had 11-6-10 in the opener and struggled shooting, but he’s been straight fire emojis of for a while before his current two-game mini shooting slump.

The Raptors are 3.5-point favorites, which feels maybe a bit high for a road game against a quality team. Then again, the early Hollinger Rankings suggest the Raptors have been so good they should be 9-point favorites, even at Fortress Phillips. At 12-2, can you really bet against the Raptors until they give you a reason not to? (Not literally “bet”…the Raptors are just 9-5 against the spread. I’m taking them for the win but would avoid that line, it’s too close on the road.)

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