Game No. 62: Hawks 109, Raptors 87

After over their head wins against the Celtics on Friday and in Atlanta on Sunday, the undermanned Raptors were due for a letdown, and the playoff caliber Hawks had to have revenge on their minds.

So I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the Raptors taking the game to the Hawks in the first half and hanging with them for a good chunk of three quarters. But once Atlanta started to pull away early in the fourth quarter, you knew the mini winning streak had run its course. The 22-point spread may be closer to what most people expected from this game, but it was in no way indicative of a dominating performance from the Hawks.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

1- I’m not going to come out and proclaim that Solomon Alabi can flat out play, but come on, hands up if you even thought the guy could hold his own against fellow NBA-ers, let alone against a 36-25 team. Alabi wasn’t great, but he did in fact hold his own, and looked far from out place while putting up better numbers than any other Raptors big man that played (Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, Aaron Gray). Solo finished with eight points (on 4-of-9 shooting), nine rebounds, one assist, one steal and a block (plus three personal fouls and two turnovers) in 24 minutes. I know he shocked the hell out of me, and personally, I’d like to see him get some minutes in the last four games of the season to judge whether this was a mere aberration, or if he can actually serve a purpose as an extra big man off the bench.

2- Another guy whose performance I liked in this game was Ben Uzoh, who along with Alan Anderson, was signed for the remainder of the season on Monday. In recent recaps, I’ve noted Uzoh’s impressive perimeter defence (though Jeff Teague torched him tonight) and his quickness in penetrating the opposing team’s defence. But another thing I like about Ben’s game is his rebounding prowess for a point guard. At 6’3, Uzoh is usually one of the smallest, if not the smallest guy on the court. And yet I’ve noticed that he’s always one of the Raptors crashing the boards on both ends of the floor and putting his body on the line to gain or save possession of the ball for his team. There was no better example than on Monday night, when Uzoh grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in 33 minutes, upping his average since joining the Raptors to seven rebounds per 36 minutes. It’s just one part of his game, but it shows me that he’s got heart and a great motor, and when combined with his quickness, defence and youth (he only recently turned 24), is one of many reasons I’d like to see him back in Raptors colours as a solid third point guard next season.

3- Welcome back, James. After being benched for two games by Dwane Casey a couple of weeks ago, James Johnson had failed to really make an impression in his first few games back in the lineup. That started to change on Sunday night in Atlanta, when Johnson’s big fourth quarter helped the Raptors pull away for the win. Then on Monday night, James put up 18 points on a very efficient 7-of-11 shooting to go along with four rebounds, five assists, a steal and a Raptors dunk of the year candidate that got everybody in the Air Canada Centre up. Hopefully he can build on his last five quarters of solid play and finish the season strong.

4- From a team perspective, I liked that the Raptors out-rebounded the Hawks 46-42, but what I really liked was watching the Raptors’ bigs hammer Hawks players on a handful of very hard fouls in the paint. Aaron Gray, especially, committed a couple of mean fouls, and I can recall one hard foul Ed Davis committed on Marvin Williams where Ed got up and walked right over Williams’ sprawled out body. At the end of the day, all most of us care about with this team is eventually getting to see a perennial winner and legitimate contender, but if you ask me, I’d prefer they get there with an intimidating mean streak, and I saw some good signs toward that in this game.

5- A few words on the Hawks. Yes, I realize that they just won a game by 22 points without ever looking like they were rolling on all cylinders, and yes, I’m aware that at 36-25, they’d be on pace for a 48-win season in a regular schedule, but I haven’t come away impressed from watching the Hawks play in a while, and I honestly don’t see them being much of a factor come playoff time. They’ll probably end up fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference (which is a testament to how improved the East has become over the last couple of years) and have to play the Celtics or Pacers in the first round without home court advantage. They should make it at least competitive, but I don’t see them beating Boston or Indiana four times out of seven. Even sadder, it appears the Hawks’ decline has started without them every truly peaking. Though to be honest, I can’t feel too bad for a “fan-base” that has never really rallied around this team. This is their fifth straight season as a playoff team, and yet they’ve finished between 18th and 25th in attendance in each of those five seasons.

6- A lot of people seem to be talking about the Raptors’ impressive play of late, especially their now 5-5 record in the month of April. But they’ve actually quietly been playing pretty well for the last three or four weeks, as if you look back to their home win over the Knicks on March 23, the Raptors are basically playing .500 ball (7-8) over their last 15 games. And if you think point-differential is a good measure of how competitive a team is over a period of time, the Raps have averaged 93 points per game while allowing 93.9 points during the 15-game sample. When you consider the fact that Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Jerryd Bayless and Linas Kleiza have all missed time over the course of this stretch, and that 12 of the 15 games have come against winning teams, it really does speak volumes about the job Dwane Casey and his staff are doing here. Just like the final result of this game, the Raptors’ record isn’t an indication of their effort and improvement in certain areas.

Hopefully next season, we’ll be able to see the fruits of that labour in terms of winning results over an 82-game stretch, not just in samples here and there.

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 37 Min, 22 Pts 8-14 FG, 1-1 3PT, 5-5 FT, 2 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 TO

Hawks Player of the Game: Jeff Teague – 36 Min, 19 Pts, 6-11 FG, 1-3 3PT, 6-8 FT, 6 Reb, 10 Ast, 2 Stl, 2 Blk, 1 TO (Honourable mention to Ivan Johnson’s 21 points and eight rebounds)