Many will dismiss the Hawks first 4-1 road trip in almost 40 years by looking at the collective winning percentage of the teams played. That is ok because this team seems completely comfortable flying under the radar. You have to think at some point in the last 40 years the quality or lack of quality of opponents lined up in similar fashion and the club had never been able to get it done prior to now.
What does it mean? The lack of quality opponents means that the schedule will eventually turn difficult but by taking care of business early on, Atlanta is building itself a buffer for when the inevitable tough times hit. It is important to remember that the 66 game schedule isn't weighted differently. The Hawks are winning the games they are supposed to win and that is refreshing for anyone that knows that hasn't always been the case in the past few seasons.
Looking at this win over the Raptors one thing completely jumps off the page. Joe Johnson punishes teams that try to place a small guard on him. Toronto started a lineup that consisted of 6-foot-3 Jose Calderon, 6-foot-3 Jerryd Bayless and 6-foot-7 DeMar DeRozan. Even DeRozan at 6-foot-7 has a hard time with Johnson due to his strength and the Hawks looked to exploit that matchup early and often. The result was a quick start for Johnson who got in a good rhythm by taking the smaller defenders inside and then eventually outside as well. The result was a game-high 30 points in 30 minutes on 13-18 shooting and 3-5 from beyond-the-arc. The only surprising thing to me was that Johnson so overpowered Toronto's defenders inside that they didn't even foul him as he got only one free-throw attempt on the night.
The truth is that if not for eight first-quarter turnovers, the Raptors might have gone away much earlier. While you don't want to turn the ball over certainly, in this case a lot of them were from trying to make the extra pass which has suddenly become a calling card of sorts for this Hawks team. Of those eight, Josh Smith was credited with three but at least two of them were on pretty nice passes to Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson who simply didn't handle the pass. Johnson's three at the horn put the Hawks up five, 23-18 at the end of the first quarter.
The Raptors put up a pretty good effort for the first part of the second quarter against Atlanta's reserves but the tied started to swing once the starters came back into the game and Johnson went picked back up where he left off in the first quarter. Atlanta closed the half on a 20-6 run that was capped off by a flurry from Johnson including a 28-foot bomb over Amir Johnson with just 1.9 seconds remaining. At that point Atlanta led 56-37 and its shooting percentage had climbed all the way to 60 percent in the first half.
As is the case in most NBA games, Toronto chipped away at the Hawks lead in the third quarter but Atlanta was able to keep them at arms length constantly stopping a mini-run with a big play of their own. Larry Drew was once again able to empty the bench in the fourth quarter with no starter playing more than Joe Johnson's 30 minutes.
In addition to Johnson's 30 points, four other Hawks scored in double figures. Tracy McGrady got the usual reception from the locals on his return to Toronto and finished with 15 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. Marvin Williams finished with 10 points, four rebounds and three assists while going 2-4 from three-point range. On the season, Williams is 23-46 from long distance and went 12-19 on the road trip.
Jeff Teague added 10 points, five assists and two steals to his docket and could have had more but passed up more than a couple of shots to find a cutting teammate particularly in transition. Zaza Pachulia also finished with 10 points and six rebounds for the Hawks.
Toronto got 14 points from Jerryd Bayless and a double-double from Ed Davis off the bench with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Gary Forbes added 10 points off the bench after being summoned into the game to try and slow down Joe Johnson. As far as the Raptors go they are a much different team with Andrea Bargnani in the lineup but they appear to be in much need of a roster turnover for Dwane Casey. Remember Casey was a leading candidate in Atlanta's most recent coaching search.
In the end it was another solid performance culminating in 51 percent shooting for the game and 21 assists on 41 made baskets for Atlanta. The Hawks hit seven more threes, held their own on the boards 40-38 and pretty much did whatever they wanted offensively.
In the last few weeks I have been asked about this club by a few casual observers that know I follow the team closely. They have asked me how the Hawks are playing this well even after losing Al Horford. Its a great question and one that I am not sure that I have an answer for but here is one observation. After watching nearly every game of this club for the last 4-5 years, this year's version is probably playing the smartest basketball of any club I have seen. On most nights they are playing the game the right way by making the extra pass and digging in on defense.
If you look at individuals, an older Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic, even Willie Green seem like laughable pick ups but the pieces have fit together well thus far with this team. Its carried over to the starters who are also moving the ball and making the extra pass and simply aren't settling for iso fall away jump shots. The credit for that should go to the entire team but also the coaching staff who no doubt has been preaching to do things the right way for some time. We are finally seeing some trust develop within the team and they look like they are having fun playing.
Another observation I make is that opposing point guards simply don't have their way with the Hawks anymore. In Jeff Teague and now also Kirk Hinrich, Atlanta has two perimeter defenders that are quick enough and willing to deter penetration to the basket. Their presence alone seems to have helped guys like Marvin Williams who has also defended well this season. On offense Teague is becoming more and more comfortable at pushing the pace and making good decisions for the club. His insertion into the lineup has had as much value as any potential trade this club could have made for a non All Star point guard.