The last game before the All-Star break can often feel like a necessary evil, the final act before some much-needed time off. Last night's Hawks/Raptors game fell into that category, even though its importance was obvious: the two teams are competing for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and could potentially play each other come playoff time.
If you're a Raptors fan, though, it would have been hard to judge the importance of the game based on the team's start; the Raptors made two of their first 15 shots and trailed by as much as seven in the first quarter. Jonas Valanciunas missed all five of his attempts, Patrick Patterson couldn't buy a three and Tyler Hansbrough committed one of the worst fouls you'll ever see when he tried to tie up Elton Brand with 1.5 seconds left and the ball 90 feet away from the Raptors' basket.
The second quarter wasn't much better, as the teams' collective shooting touch couldn't have been worse if everyone had oven mitts for hands. A late-quarter surge by Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross was enough to give the Raptors a 45-44 lead, but no one should have been proud of that half - well, except Gustavo Ayon, who scored 12 points a on a perfect 6-6 shooting in the half.
Then things changed.
The second half was all Toronto, as they outscored the Hawks by 20 to largely due to a brilliant performance from DeMar DeRozan, who will head to New Orleans on a high note after scoring 31 points on 11-19 shooting. Kyle Lowry put up another double-double (16-13), while Jonas Valanciunas had a Dennis Rodman-like performance with two points and 14 rebounds. Patrick Patterson, who started once again for the injured Amir Johnson, put in another great performance.
It all ended in a surprisingly comfortable 104-83 win, the type of win that good teams put together all the time. At this point, it's hard to conclude that the Raptors are anything but a good team. They are 1.5 games ahead of Chicago for third in the conference and, with a home- and East-heavy schedule the rest of the way, they have to be considered the favorites to hold on to that spot the rest of the way.
With Washington and Chicago up next after the break, the Raptors will have a golden opportunity to put more distance between themselves and the teams immediately behind them. Let's see if they can do it.
In the meantime, enjoy All-Star Weekend and a Raptor in the big game for the first time since 2010.