Beyond our usual Fun and Good reasons, it is an absolute treat to watch the Raptors when they relentlessly execute their game plan. Tonight, Toronto didn’t need to do that the entire time however, easing off the Hawks just enough to make the score look respectable. From the jump though, the Raptors came, saw, and conquered, leaving Atlanta with a decisive 108-93 victory. I assume the casual play down the stretch was a favour to coach Mike Budenholzer. (Or maybe Dwane Casey wanted to troll him? Who knows.)
After Jonas Valanciunas made a turnaround jumper at the 7:05 mark of the first quarter to put the Raps up 8-6, that was pretty much it for the Hawks. The Raptors would continue on an 11-0 run, and balloon the lead out to as much as 14 points in the first quarter. Would you believe it got worse for Atlanta from then on? Readers, it did indeed. From then it was just a steady dose of new-look Raptors basketball — the ball moved, the threes dropped, and the defense was strong. At one point Toronto’s lead was as big as 30 points.
And also, right, one more thing: the Raptors bench was dope. Fresh off of not getting any players named to the 2018 Rising Stars game, Toronto’s youth crew decided to slice and dice the Hawks for large stretches of this one. Fred VanVleet led all Raptors with 19 points, seven rebounds(!), and five assists, while shooting 6-of-9 from the field (including 4-of-6 from three). His usual running mates all chipped in too. Jakob Poeltl with six points, five boards, and a pair of blocks; Delon Wright had five points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal, and his usual strong defensive effort; Pascal Siakam ran the break a few times and finished with a 6-point, 4-board night; and while he didn’t score any points, Norman Powell played within himself and made sound decisions with the ball. (C.J. Miles, the bench dad, also pitched in nine points — sure why not?)
The Raptors barely needed the starters in this one, but when they did play, boy howdy, it was wonderful. Kyle Lowry dissected the Hawks, got Dennis Schroder increasingly frustrated (right up to and including a near-flagrant and a technical), and dictated play right up until the end of the third, when he took a seat. Lowry finished with a breezy nine points, five rebounds, and four assists. His backcourt running mate DeMar DeRozan largely matched that, with 14 points, four assists, and three rebounds of his own. (Even with Kent Bazemore getting consistently right up in his grill.)
We also got to see OG Anunoby hit a pair of threes — much needed — and show off some of his dribbling and passing skills. Serge Ibaka, off three days rest, looked spry; and Jonas Valanciunas bounced back in a big way after sitting for most of the game against Minnesota with foul trouble. The Big Science managed some strong stretches of defense, collecting three blocks, while also amassing 19 points (on 7-of-14 shooting), 13 rebounds, and three assists. It was a great night all around, is my point.
Now here comes the caveat: yes, it was the Hawks. They’re now 15-32 with the loss, and not looking to improve any time soon. For a brief moment in the second quarter it looked like maybe Schroder would or could shoot them back in the game — but for the night, one in which Atlanta shot just 39 percent from the field, it was not meant to be. It rarely is meant to be for this year’s version of the Hawks. Such is life.
That said — let’s get back on track here — the Raptors played extremely well. With all the talk of the Celtics on a four-game losing streak, and the Cavaliers deciding how best to implode heading into the All-Star break, there’s a little rumble of momentum in Toronto right now. Is this the year when opportunity knocks for real, when the Raptors put all the pieces together — the veteran know-how, the young exuberance, the new-age style — and make a serious, credible run to the NBA Finals?
Yes, yes, I know, let me come back down to Earth here. it’s just a game against the Hawks late in January; but watching Toronto easily roll on, and on, and on, can lull a person into some serious daydreaming.