Ready or not, the 2014-15 NBA season has arrived; and the Hawks and Raptors certainly brought exuberance and entertainment to their opening-night clash, with home-standing Toronto sprinting to a 109-102 victory.
Here are some random quick thoughts about Atlanta’s defeat, with eye toward the Hawks’ home opener on Saturday night (against the Pacers):
1. There were a number things to celebrate in the road opener: The Hawks shot 50 percent from the field and drained 13 of 22 three-pointers (59 percent) against the Raptors.
And of equal importance, six Atlanta players — Al Horford, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott — all scored in double figures.
2. The former coach in me loathes how Atlanta made only 9 of 17 free throws and committed nearly double the turnovers (17) to Toronto (nine).
But let’s take the bigger picture here:
The Hawks (0-1) are committed to a free-flowing, up-tempo system under second-year coach Mike Budenholzer — kind of like the NBA during the 1970s and 80s.
3. Scott was particularly impressive in his 21 minutes off the bench, nailing 8 of 11 shots (including four triples) and playing a major role in the Hawks’ frenetic rally in the waning moments.
What’s more, Scott (+7) and Korver (+6) were the only Hawks to register positive plus/minus ratios for the night.
4. Horford (12 points, 13 boards, 3 blocks) and Millsap (13 points, 10 boards) had a robotic precision to their games, collecting double-doubles without getting lost in the quick-paced flow.
And frankly, there were some initial concerns at how effective the frontliners would be in the second half — given the high-tempo, perimeter-oriented nature of the first half, as both clubs combined for 112 points in the first 24 minutes.
Horford certainly looked sharp for a guy who hadn’t played an official game for 10 months (season-ending shoulder injury last December). He also fared well in defending Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who scored the majority of his 17 points at the charity stripe (9 of 10 free throws).
5. Raptors reserve Greivis Vasquez only tallied 12 points against the Hawks, but his flurry of back-to-back triples might have been the most important sequence of the first half.
With Atlanta trailing by one early in the second quarter, Vasquez buried a pair of extra-long three-pointers (one at 25 feet, one at 24 feet) to quickly boost Toronto’s advantage to seven — in just 15 seconds.
From that point, the Raptors would consistently keep the Hawks at arm’s length, taking an eight-point lead into the break.
6. From a TV perspective, I love how Hawks play-by-play man Bob Rathbun calls a game. His energy level never dips, even during sustained lulls with Atlanta’s defense … and he’s a perpetual motion machine, when it comes to promoting the next televised event or home game.
(Growing up in Detroit, Pistons announcer George Blaha was similarly stellar at building the hype for future games … and that wasn’t easy in the 1980s, when the club played at the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome.)
7. So far, so good on the Hawks’ feasible quest of leading the NBA in made three-pointers (along with 3-point attempts). And there’s no doubting Korver’s readiness for the season ahead, given his 20 points and six triples (on seven tries).
It’s amazing how well Korver (the all-time NBA record-holder for consecutive games with at least one three-pointer) fits into this age of pro basketball, where expert spacing and elite-level distance shooting are eminently valuable components to success.
Do you recall that two-minute span in the second quarter when Korver accounted for nine of Atlanta’s 13 points, courtesy of three beyond-the-arc baskets?
8. On paper, the Hawks might have the most versatility and depth of any club in the Southeast Division. But they’ll need more two-way production from Elton Brand (two points, one board), Thabo Sefolosha (zero points), Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Shelvin Mack (five assists in 15 minutes).
However, there’s no point in making rash generalizations about that group on Opening Night. For that group, the proof’s in the pudding … in terms of flourishing during long road trips and on the business end of back-to-back nights.
9. It was weird seeing Lucas Nogueira on the Raptors’ bench.
For those with short memories, the 22-year-old Brazilian had been acquired in a Round 1 trade during the 2013 draft and subsequently stashed overseas, with the intent of letting Nogueira (7-foot, 225 pounds) develop his raw, but tangible skills — without being on the proverbial NBA clock.
Well, fast forward 12 months … and the Hawks — in need of cap space for the July free-agent period — shipped Nogueira and guard Lou Williams to the Raptors for John Salmons (an immediate cap casualty).
Now, I can understand when teams clear valuable cap space to make legitimate, first-class runs at big-time players. But I always cringe when clubs abandon recent draft strategies — especially with big men — as a means of chasing free-agent ghosts who never sign.
Will Nogueira be a star or even a productive reserve in this league for years to come? Only time will tell.
But what’s the rationale in dumping a high-ceiling big man so soon in his development? Especially when Atlanta might have been better off drafting Mason Plumlee (No. 22 overall pick — now with the Nets) at the time?
Of course, I’m quite certain the Hawks would have never made the same deal with the Raptors if Giannis Antetokounmpo — the Milwaukee Bucks’ promising second-year player — had fallen one more slot (ostensibly to the Hawks) in the 2013 draft.
10. It’s hard to declare an outright winner in the point-guard battle between Teague and Kyle Lowry (11 points).
The Raptors playmaker enjoyed the edge over Teague in assists (10), rebounds (6) and free throws made. He also contributed to Toronto having six other double-figure scorers against Atlanta.
(Don’t forget about the victory, as well.)
Teague, in turn, outperformed his counterpart with points (20), field goals made (8) and overall shooting efficiency — while also logging two fewer minutes than Lowry.
Which brings us to this: If Teague has any dreams of becoming an All-Star this season, four core things must happen:
a) The Hawks need to have a top-5 record in the East come mid-February and a few signature wins over clubs like San Antonio, Cleveland, Miami, Chicago, Houston, New York, Brooklyn, Denver, Detroit and the Los Angeles teams — the Clippers and Lakers.
b) By mid-February, Teague must be on pace to eclipse last season’s double-doubles tally (13).
c) Teague’s scoring average, which has improved in each of his five seasons, needs to go up incrementally once again. More importantly, though, he cannot incur another slight drop in assists — unless Dennis Schroder quickly becomes the real deal, as backup point guards go.
d) Around Valentine’s Day, you should be able to count Teague’s high-turnover nights — like the six from Wednesday — on one hand.