ATLANTA -- From eyeing a franchise-best start at the beginning of the week, the sky-high Raptors are coming back to terra firma.
They've discovered teams such as the Atlanta Hawks have made their own off-season improvements and that coach Sam Mitchell spoke from experience when he poured cold-water quotes all over their 3-0 start.
When Atlanta was finished picking apart Toronto 110-92 last night at Philips Arena, the Raptors had gone without a lead since 1:10 into the second quarter of their loss to Detroit. Now 3-2, they get a potential respite in Charlotte against the Bobcats tomorrow before staring down the NBA champion Boston Celtics at the end of the road trip.
"They beat us off the draw, they scored 22 points off our turnovers, we scored enough, but couldn't get any stops," Mitchell said in listing a litany of problems last night.
Some of the coach's biggest criticisms were aimed at a soft perimeter defence that allowed Hawks such as Mike Bibby to burn them long range for five three-pointers en route to 19 points, while four others reached double figures from plenty of post chances. Joe Johnson, normally a shooting guard, was switched to covering Toronto point guard Jose Calderon and held him to six points, netting 17 himself while leading Atlanta's 41-32 rebounding edge.
Mitchell also sent up more warning flares about his team sitting back in the belief that big men Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal will do all the dirty work on defence.
"We have to keep people out of the post," Mitchell said. "Defence starts with yourself."
The change in Hawks' coverge of Calderon left Toronto shooting guard Anthony Parker more room, but he was a dismal 2-for-9 from the floor.
"By allowing so many fast break points (18-3 Hawks) and second opportunities, you make it harder on yourself," Parker said. "It was just one of those games."
Both teams took the same amount of shots, but the Raptors only hit on 43.2%. But this time the problems on offence weren't all revolving around O'Neal's accuracy as the big-money centre was 7-of-10 from the field and got nasty a few times driving to the hoop. He matched his season-high of 17 points from opening night.
But you knew it was going to be a long night when Mitchell was frantically calling for a time out barely a minute into the game. It came after O'Neal came up short with a 12-foot opening attempt, Parker's first pass went astray and field general Calderon looked as confused as Custer at Little Big Horn.
Bosh's early frustration boiled over to a technical for chirping at an official after he'd scored two of his team-high 26 points.
All this takes nothing away from an Atlanta team that's off to a 4-0 start, its best in 11 years. They were every bit as stingy as Mitchell predicted, with four first-half steals and double digit leads.
"They shot the lights out, we played no defence, so mix the two together and what do you get?," Bosh said.
At least there were none of the Twilight Zone moments that have cost the Raptors on this court the past few years -- scorekeepers losing track of points and a referee who didn't start the clock on time and waved off a key basket.
Last year, shooting guard T.J. Ford was carted off after running into Al Horford and banging his head. That unintentionally opened the door for Calderon to take a bigger role with the team and Ford's eventual departure in a trade for O'Neal.