Game Recap: Atlanta Hawks 104, Toronto Raptors 101

It is ironic that a game where defense was largely ignored came down to Atlanta having to make a defensive play at the end to seal the victory. On a night where Jamal Crawford threatened to provide an answer to Jason Walker's poll just hours after it was posted, it came down to Al Horford playing good defense on Jose Calderon of all people after a switch on the pick and roll. No this wasn't a text book win for the Hawks, but it was a win nonetheless. Given the circumstances we will accept the win graciously and get back to frozen Atlanta just as fast as we can.

It is easy to get lured into not bringing your "A" game defensively in a game like this. Toronto entered last night's contest allowing opponents to shoot 49% from the field which is dead last in the league. Offensively there were opportunities available the entire game. So if that was the case then why did it seem like the Hawks had such a hard time scoring? Simply put the Raptors switched to a zone defense and the Hawks had a very difficult time executing any kind of offense against it. I don't want to be the guy that makes excuses but Atlanta's preparation and routine before the game were seriously altered due to the weather conditions in Atlanta. They canceled at least one practice and coach Drew said they held a walk through in a ball room of the hotel they were staying in before the game. I don't know if the zone defense was part of the game plan or the advanced scouting report, but if it wasn't, then hats off to Toronto for throwing a wrinkle at Atlanta that they clearly weren't expecting. 

Even if the Hawks knew that the zone was coming, it is not something that they have been terribly successful against this season. Atlanta settled for a lot of long jump shots early and the zone further enticed them to do so in the second half. One reason the Hawks struggle so much against the zone is that many times the ball fails to penetrate the zone in any way. Atlanta is prone to just swinging the ball around the perimeter which hardly forces the zone defense to move and usually leads to a long semi contested shot at the shot shot clock buzzer. You combine this with the Hawks never really getting in gear defensively and you have the recipe for a road loss to a rather inferior opponent. That is not intended as a slight to the Raptors who probably outplayed the Hawks in this one but speaks volumes of the talent differential on both rosters. 

In my mind there were three huge offensive plays that enabled the Hawks to win this game. The biggest play perhaps was Crawford's thirty foot bomb at the shot clock buzzer with the Hawks down 95-91 and the situation looking bleak with Atlanta wilting against Toronto's zone. Next was DeMar DeRozan's foul of Jamal Crawford on a three point attempt with just 53 seconds remaining in the game which gave the Hawks the lead back at 99-98. However, Toronto answered yet again with a Jose Calderon / Amir Johnson pick and roll that resulted in a three point play that gave the Raptors a 101-99 lead. After the Hawks failed to convert, Amir Johnson was called for a moving screen on a high pick and roll which gave Atlanta the ball back trailing by two with 10 seconds remaining. 

As Atlanta went into the time out everyone in the Air Canada Centre had to be convinced that Jamal Crawford who to that point had torched the Raptors with 36 points would be recipient of whatever play coach Drew came up with in the Hawks huddle. The small percentage of people that thought Jamal might be used as a decoy were convinced that Joe Johnson would get the ball. Enter Mike Bibby who on a set play that was very similar to one that was run in Orlando earlier this season, took the inbounds pass and never hesitated in burying the three giving the Hawks a 102-101 lead. Consider that up to that point Bibby was 1-7 from the field yet coach Drew never hesitated in putting the ball and the game in Bibby's hands. 

Still there were eight seconds left in the game and defense had hardly been the Hawks strong point all night. Coach Drew inserted a defensive lineup of Joe Johnson, Maurice Evans, Damien Wilkins, Josh Smith, and Al Horford. Johnson was matched against Jose Calderon who forced a switch on a pick and roll with Al Horford. Horford played good defense on the drive and ended up blocking the attempt out of bounds off of Calderon giving the Hawks back the ball. The officials had to goto replay to determine that the ball was in fact off of Calderon and it clearly showed a very nice job of defending a much quicker offensive player by Al Horford. Two Joe Johnson free throws and a missed Andrea Bargnani heave later and the Hawks were victorious. 

Jamal Crawford continued his hot streak scoring 36 points on 12-23 shooting. Crawford scored 25 of those points in the first half. It was the sixth consecutive game that Jamal has topped 20+ points. Joe Johnson added 26 points on 10-20 shooting while Al Horford dialed up a double double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. 

It was a gritty victory even if it wasn't pretty. Perhaps even less than ideal. The Hawks settled for a ton of shots from the perimeter even as I noted that Joe Johnson would have a decided advantage over any of the Toronto defenders in the post. Once the Raptors switched to zone, that all but eliminated any chance of getting Al Horford involved in the offense. Josh Smith also fell into the trap of launching some long jump shots finishing 3-15 from the field but did collect nine rebounds. Yet through all the adversity of the weather and less than stellar execution, the Hawks still found a way to pull out a victory and that in itself is very encouraging. 

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