Lewenberg: Raptors begin daunting road stretch in Atlanta

Josh Lewenberg
11/1/2013 12:43:44 PM
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ATLANTA - Coming off an opening night win at home, the Raptors take to the road, visiting the Atlanta Hawks in the first half of a weekend back-to-back set on Friday.

The Raptors, who went 13-28 on the road a year ago, will play their first game away from the Air Canada Centre this season. They'll play six of their next eight contests, and 19 of 33 outside of Toronto.

"When you play on the road [for] so many games, you have a lot of adversity you have to fight through," said guard DeMar DeRozan, who struggled in the team's 93-87 win over Boston on Wednesday, scoring 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting.

"That can't do anything but be beneficial for us, especially early on," he continued. "If we get through this little tough stretch, we'll be fine. Me personally, I think it's a great test for us. It'll help us find our character early on."

Toronto hopes to start the campaign on a winning streak, picking up where they left off when they closed last season with five consecutive victories.

The Hawks return to Atlanta for their home opener after allowing the Mavericks to shoot 57 per cent in a 118-109 loss on Wednesday.

"I think this team is a very offensive-minded team, a very good offensive team," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said of the Hawks, who shot 49 per cent in Dallas opening night. "The biggest change is now you have [Paul] Millsap, who's a very consistent pick and pop guy. You've got two bigs (Millsap and Al Horford) who are not you're traditional low-post guys. It's a very versatile offensive team from that perspective."

"They're one of the teams that's going to be knocking on that door for those last couple spots in the playoffs."

After losing Josh Smith to free agency during the summer, Atlanta is turning the page with Millsap - the former Jazz forward, signed to a two-year $19 million deal in the offseason - and new head coach Mike Budenholzer.

A first-year head coach, Budenholzer comes to Atlanta after 19 seasons as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.

"He's running the same things they ran in San Antonio," Casey said of the Hawks' new coach. "He's going to do a good job because he's taken a lot of San Antonio's system there to Atlanta."

Trends and Tidbits

Last season, the Raptors were one of four teams in the NBA - along with the Bulls, Grizzlies and Suns - to average more points and shoot a higher field goal percentage on the road than at home. However, they gave up 102.4 points per game as a visiting team, 7.4 points more than they allowed at home.

Friday's game is the first half of a weekend back-to-back which concludes in Milwaukee on Saturday, the team's first of 18 back-to-backs this season. Last year, Toronto had a 6-12 record in the first game of a back-to-back and 8-10 in the second game.

Kyle Korver's current streak of 74 consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer is the fourth longest in NBA history behind only Dana Barros (89), Michael Adams (79) and Dennis Scott (78). Korver is shooting 46 per cent from long distance during that run and ranks sixth among active players in career three-point field goal percentage (.419). Raptors' forward Steve Novak ranks second (.433).

What to Watch For

Battle on the boards

Finishing strong defensive possessions off with a rebound was a focus for Casey's club throughout camp. Not only did they control the defensive boards in Wednesday's home opener but they dominated the offensive glass, creating extra possessions that became crucial in grinding out an ugly win.

Toronto outrebounded Boston 48-33, including a 19-7 advantage on the offensive boards. Although the Celtics were more efficient, shooting 49 per cent (another area of emphasis for Casey), the Raptors' attempted 20 more shots and scored 28 second-chance points.

Atlanta's front line is a small one, with the undersized Millsap and Horford in the middle. The Hawks were bested on the boards 42-33 on Wednesday, grabbing just five offensive rebounds.

Moving the ball

The Raptors managed just 15 assists to 18 turnovers on 38 field goals on Wednesday, registering just two dimes in the final quarter when the team relied heavily on isolation sets. Casey said DeRozan, and the team in general, have to do a better job of adjusting to regular season defences and passing out of double teams.

"I think a lot of it is getting used to the regular season basketball," Casey said. "I think everybody has to get used to that. It's a different mentality, a different toughness. We have to adapt to it."

"Teams are more aggressive, they're more fired up."

Who to Watch For

Kyle Lowry

Lowry, playing with a splint on his injured left ring finger, struggled with his shot in the first game, shooting just 2-of-8 from the field and 7-for-12 at the line.

The Raptors' point guard chalked it up to an off-night and refused to blame the injury. Although he had eight assists in the opener, he'll have to be more efficient offensively and will also be tasked with slowing down Hawks' point guard Jeff Teague, one of the quicker players in the NBA.

Paul Millsap

Coming over from Utah, Millsap scored 20 points in his Hawks debut. As Casey alluded to, Millsap is a versatile big man who can play either forward position and stretch the floor with his mid-range shooting.

"He's a silent killer," Casey said of Millsap. "He's just a solid, old-school, hardworking guy that we're really going to have to be concerned about."

Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough will share the responsibility of keeping Millsap contained on the pick and pop.

"He's a hell of a player," Lowry said of Millsap, both members of the 2006 draft class. "He's an all-star calibre player. He's tough, I'm a big fan of his, I've always been a big fan of his since his rookie year. He's going to be a beast in the East."

Injury Report

Guard Lou Williams (right knee) and centre Gustavo Ayon (right shoulder) are both out for the Hawks.

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