We've reached the point of the season when a Raptors game has a predictable look and feel. Tonight's game against the Atlanta Hawks was like a greatest hits package that captured all that is good (and bad) about this Raptors team. Toronto hung in tough against the Hawks, winning the game 104-96. It was a win they needed, not just to solidify the team's standing, but to prove they could win with some authority. As of late, that kind of authority feels almost new.
So what was familiar? Well, the start was sluggish, of course. Despite shooting 53 percent from the field in the first quarter, the Raptors looked wildly out of sorts. They had six turnovers (which quickly ballooned to nine by the end of the half), and struggled to keep the Hawks off the offensive glass. We got to collectively worry about Kyle Lowry, just for kicks, after he went to the locker room to end the half. And you'd be shocked to learn the Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas combo had trouble at times staying with the Hawks' dynamic pairing of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. The latter was the man for Atlanta, dropping 20 points on a thrilling combination of post play, cuts and threes. (Forgive me a moment while I dream about Horford in a Raptors uniform.)
There were some delightful new things to the Raps' game though. We got to see a rare Lowry-Valanciunas pick-and-roll that resulted in an easy Jonas dunk. Norman Powell, rookie starter, was tasked with harassing sniper Kyle Korver and wouldn't you know it, the veteran managed a mere five points. Coach Dwane Casey said Powell played "like an old man," giving him credit for veteran's sense of awareness. Oh yeah, and that was something: both Scola and Valanciunas finishing with double-doubles, at 10-12 and 10-10 respectively. Go figure. What else? A vicious Terrence Ross dunk, Bismack Biyombo swatted a Millsap finger roll late, Patrick Patterson hit a huge three and later airballed a floater, Lowry took a charge to break the Hawks' back (even as we cringed watching him hit the deck one more time) -- this game had it all.
Like clockwork, DeMar DeRozan knifed his way to 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting and nine trips to the free throw line. It was effortless out there for him, the familiar sight of his drive-and-get-fouled game frustrating the Hawks over and over again. The Raptors bench likewise appeared to pressure the weak Hawks' reserves into submission -- only Dennis Schroder continued to attack with any real menace. (His war of attrition with Cory Joseph was something to watch.) For his part, Lowry finished with 19 points and seven assists, while the twin X-factors of Ross and Patterson combined for 24 points on 10-of-21 shooting. And, most importantly, the Raptors' defense played better more often than not.
For a team that saw last season crumble apart into a haze of defensive lapses, this last month has been an old reminder of a painfully familiar place. We know where that particular path leads. It's easy to forget that the Raptors have never been here before; a 50-win season is within their grasp and the 2-seed is all but locked up. That's become almost old hat to us now. No, the new feeling is something else: expectation, greatness, some real anticipation. The potential for massive disappointment.
"Toronto is playing really good basketball," said Horford after the game. "Cleveland is playing good basketball, and so is Boston, Miami as well. The East is deep, much deeper than it has been in the past." That's something else that's new. There are 19 games left. Here we go.
What did you guys think of the game?