Head coach Dwane Casey will insist until the end of time that his Raptors approach every opponent with deadly seriousness. This is the job of a professional basketball coach, to prepare the team for the challenges — such as the are — ahead. But if you’re a player on the Raptors looking at the hapless assembly of “talent” on the Atlanta Hawks roster, how serious would you take it?
If Friday night’s contest is anything to go by for Toronto, the answer is: not very. The Raptors eased into their return to the ACC (after two disappointing losses on the road) with obvious calm. And despite Casey’s preparations for the worst, they eventually (casually, even) overwhelmed the poor Hawks 111-98; it was not as close as the score would suggest. “It’s always great to bounce back after one loss, especially two in a row,” said DeMar DeRozan. “Come back home, get back in our groove of things and get that feeling of winning back ... It sucks to lose. It sucks, so it feels good to come out here tonight and get a win.”
Still, the Hawks tried. After the Raptors sleepily went up by 20 in the third quarter, Atlanta responded with a 9-0 run to make things interesting — or so they thought. The Raptors immediately went on an 11-0 run to put the game back out of reach. And that’s how it went on the night. A look at the stats suggests some sort of equality between the teams — relatively even shooting splits and rebounding numbers, for example — but Toronto pounced all over Atlanta’s 18 turnovers, and put up 17 more shots in the game. Sure, the Hawks had a fourth quarter run in them — shrinking the lead again to as low as nine points — and Taureen Prince led all scorers with 30 points, but the game largely progressed as one would expect for both teams.
Nevertheless, some individual highlights: DeRozan did indeed get back on track with an easy 25-point performance on 10-of-18 shooting. Free of the rugged defense of Wesley Matthews and Andre Roberson, DeRozan was able to go back to operating freely around the court. Likewise for Kyle Lowry, who didn’t exert himself too hard on the way to 12 points, five assists, and five rebounds. (I suppose we could be concerned about this, but Lowry barely broke a sweat.) “That's what good teams do,” said Lowry on the win. “You don't let a couple losses set you back from your long term goal.”
Lowry’s backup Delon Wright also deserves special mention. Wright is playing so smoothly right now it’s easy to forget he missed a month with an injured shoulder. Wright had 13 points (on 6-of-10 shooting), plus seven rebounds and two assists, and was a constant surprise on the court, every move from him coming at an unexpected pace and angle. As the quiet leader of that second unit, Wright continues to set the tone on both offense and defense.
A mix of Raptors bigs got more playing time tonight as well. Jonas Valanciunas made hay (mostly in the first half) with 13 points and 11 rebounds (he even hit another 3). Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl did their work in tandem, with 11 points and 17 rebounds between them. OG Anunoby returned to form with a striking 9 point-4 rebound-2 steal performance — which included a Dominique-esque dunk, and a riot-inducing strip-and-dunk that had Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer real angry. And then Lucas Nogueira, from out of nowhere, came on in the fourth and changed the game up again, magically tallying six points, three rebounds, and two blocks in a rather manic 7-minute performance. Viva Bebe!
Now, as was announced before the game, the reason all these forwards got to play more was because the Raptors suspended Serge Ibaka over an “altercation” with a staffer. It’s grim to acknowledge this given the frivolity of the game, but here’s hoping whatever bad mojo out there can dissipate in due time (if it hasn’t already).
For all the sudden panic that swarmed in over the recent holiday losses, tonight’s easy win for Toronto acts a reminder: it’s a long season, the Raptors are still fun and good, and the stability of the team over the long haul is what’s important.
[cues up NBC’s The More You Know music]
And that’s my final lesson of the year. The Raptors end 2017 at 24-10 with a firm grasp on, at the very least, third place in the East. See you in 2018.