Once the shots started to fall for the Toronto Raptors (28-24), a strong defensive showing handled the rest en route to a 104-83 win over the slumping Atlanta Hawks.
Toronto opened the contest ice cold from the floor, making just three of their first 16 shots and getting more than seven minutes into the game before surpassing six points scored (in spite of getting some pretty good looks). However, they sustained a strong defensive presence and demonstrated a level of confidence in knowing that they would find their rhythm.
DeMar DeRozan had 31 points (on 11-19 shooting) and Kyle Lowry once again flirted with a triple-double (16 points, 13 assists, six rebounds), while the Toronto defence forced 15 Hawk turnovers and held the opposition to 38.5% (30-78) shooting and 20% (4-20) shooting from three-point range.
With the win, the Raps head into the All-Star break sitting four games above .500 and holding a comfortable three-game Atlantic division lead with 30 games left to play this season.
The DeRozan/Lowry Duo
The most productive back court in the East continued to thrive on Wednesday night, creating what was the game's biggest mismatch. While DeRozan and Lowry combined for 47 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, their starting counterparts - Jeff Teague and Lou Williams - struggled to find any kind of rhythm en route to just 18 points on 6-21 combined shooting.
Upping the Defensive Intensity
For as frustrating as the team's first quarter futility was, there remained a continued emphasis on doing what was needed on the other end of the court so as to avoid digging what could have been a major hole. Even as Toronto reached the midway point of the first quarter with four points, they only trailed by four on account of some hustle and energy in getting back. That same intensity allowed the Raps to create some distance as their shots started to fall. While the home side scored 85 points over the final three quarters, Atlanta was held to just 59 over that stretch, with none of the three quarters producing more than 21 points.
Jonas on Offence
For a guy who, on Wednesday night, showed such adept skill in getting the ball, Jonas Valanciunas sure didn't seem to know what to do with it once it was in his clutches. JV played a key rebounding role for Toronto, wrestling 14 rebounds away from Paul Milsap and the Hawks. But he also looked utterly lost when it came time to finish, shooting 1-9 from the field (many of his attempts came from in close) and appearing hesitant and confused, as though he was doubting his own capacity to play in the paint. On top of missing five shots during the team's early offensive floundering, Valanciunas' struggles contributed to Atlanta's 50-32 edge in points in the paint.
As far as 'tweener girls are concerned, Mark McMorris is the star of the Sochi Olympics. That much was made abundantly clear on Wednesday, when he was introduced on the big screen and over the PA system to a standing ovation from those in attendance after a surprisingly early return from Russia. While that could have been anticipated, the onslaught of screaming, pre-teen girls that ensued (particularly at halftime) was an eye-opener, especially for the still-not-quite-fame-savvy McMorris.
That the Hawks remain firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff picture serves as a pretty telling indictment of the (L)East. Putting aside their current five-game skid, this is a team that has found success with Milsap, who is perfectly servicable but hardly a star, serving as their best player. Their second-best? It's pretty well as toss-up between a roughly league-average point guard (Teague), an oft-injured wing player best suited for sixth-man duty (Williams) and one dimensional shooter Kyle Korver. Against Toronto, the team's best player was Gustavo Ayon (18 points on 9-11 shooting). And yet, with Al Horford injured and a recent exodus from Atlanta shipping out Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, there's still a prevailing sense that the Hawks could win a round this spring.
If your name is DeMar DeRozan or Terrence Ross, then All-Star weekend awaits. If not, then it will be a few days of much-needed R&R before returning to the court on Tuesday in a visit to Washington (7:00pm, TSN2).
Prediction: Raps 110, Wizards 105 (30-12 this season)