The Raptors’ identity of late has been shaped around the idea they have a higher gear that lets them take over games in just a few minutes. This version of the team, post-championship and injury, can still get most of the way there. The belief is strong; it’s just a matter of ability. It’s how Toronto can get stuck in a battle with the struggling Hawks, fresh off a team meeting and unsure of themselves, who entered Saturday night’s game 4-11.
That’s not to say the Hawks didn’t put in an effort. Even coming off a shellacking against the Pistons the previous night, the young Atlanta core kept fighting — almost comically so, as the seconds at the end stretched on and on, filled with intrigue. It’s just that as limited as the Raptors may be at times in terms of ability, they’ve still got more overall talent and, most importantly, know-how. It’s how they eventually did reach a higher gear, climbed out of a seemingly game-long deficit, and put the Hawks away, 119-116.
Leading the way for Toronto, as he has most of the season, was Pascal Siakam. His efficient 34 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three, were the biggest difference maker on the night for the Raps. While Atlanta’s Trae Young did have a 30-10-10 triple-double, Toronto leaned on Siakam to make the most noise on offense, even when he wasn’t scoring. His presence and timing were enough to help slowly get the Raptors back into it. Of course, after they played from behind for most of the second quarter, Siakam could also do things like hitting back-to-back threes to shrink a nine-point deficit to three in 30 seconds.
Against the Hawks, that kind of speed matters. What Atlanta lacks in discipline and top-end talent, they make up for in pure effort. Fortunately for the Raptors, when the game turned into a track meet, Fred VanVleet was able to keep the pace. Once again FVV refused to get rattled when Atlanta would go on little runs — or Trae would hit shots like this — and kept the squad moving in the right direction. Along the way, VanVleet also scored 25 points (on 7-of-21 shooting — plus 9-of-9 from the line) to go with nine assists. The Raptors’ diminutive leader was pressured into five turnovers, but was instrumental at settling Toronto into some winning patterns.
Likewise Marc Gasol, who spent much of the game’s first half doing what he could to keep the Hawks from scoring at will in the paint. Gasol’s line of 3-7-3 doesn’t exactly jump out, but the veteran big man was instrumental in keeping the Raptors’ defense from collapsing on more than one occasion. And he can still be counted on for a little ball-movement magic when needed.
In any case, VanVleet was match in the Raptors backcourt by Norman Powell, who continued his strong run of play tonight too. Norm put in 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including a mix of 3s and strong drives to the basket. For chunks of the first quarter, and down the stretch, Powell played his role to a T, and, if you can believe this, led by example. The Raptors only got a combined ten points from Terence Davis and Matt Thomas on the night, so Powell’s continued presence was comforting. Maybe this starting lineup thing does indeed agree with Norm.
Despite a lead that got as big as ten in the third quarter, the Hawks were eventually overwhelmed by that trio of Siakam, VanVleet, and Powell. The Raptors opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run and, with additional hustle contributions from Chris Boucher (13-and-8) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (7-and-9), were actually able to flip the score to an 11-point lead in their favour with just over a minute and a half to go. For all intents and purposes, this one felt like a young team getting beat by a more experienced foe and succumbing to the pressures of a back-to-back. Except, credit to the Hawks, they didn’t go away.
Instead, thanks to a 13-5 run in those last 90 seconds, the Hawks pushed the Raptors into a one possession game after Toronto seemed to relax. With 4.5 seconds left, Young did get a look at a three — it was extra deep, but he’s made those before. It didn’t go in and Toronto could exhale. For most of this one, it was almost expected that the Raptors would take control at some point. They do have that gear after all. Even with the threat of overtime looming on the road, it’s hard to suggest the Raptors were ever actually worried.