It would have been totally understandable for Toronto to have taken a snooze against the Hawks. Within the span of a TV episode, four of the Raptors’ pals got dealt away from the team on Thursday afternoon. Who wouldn’t be distracted? Making that crisp defensive rotation seems less important when your friends spent the day being human Boggle boards. On top of all that, Toronto’s best player was out with a sore knee. Could you have blamed the Raptors if they’d packed it in after Atlanta hit 7-of-9 threes in the opening quarter?
Sometimes, though, one of these extreme circumstance games inspires something special from the slim collection of lads you have on hand. Who could forget Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combining for 81 points as an eight-man squad beat the Lakers the day the Raptors dealt Rudy Gay in 2013?
Pushing on through that early Hawks onslaught, the nine available Raptors on Thursday earned themselves one of those memorable wins, topping Atlanta 119-101.
At one point in the second quarter of this one, the Hawks led 66-49 on the back of some boss ass performances by Taurean Prince, Trae Young, and yes ... Vince Carter. Atlanta dropped more threes in a half than the Raps had ever yielded. Toronto’s offense early was sluggish and disjointed.
Something flipped with a few minutes to go in the second frame, though. Whatever that something was, it ignited one of the most pleasurable stretches of basketball the Raptors have produced this season.
Pascal Siakam ... good lord, man. With Leonard out and no backup centres currently on the roster after today’s moves, Siakam took on double-duty as a go-to scorer and minute-consuming four-five hybrid. Prior to tonight, Amir Johnson’s 32-point, 10-rebound, 14-of-17 showing in the post-Gay deal Lakers win was the all-time best short-handed Raptors showing. Siakam had The Amir Game-plus, finishing with yet another career-high 33 points to pair with 13 boards, four assists, two steals and a block on 12-of-19 shooting in 40 heart-palpitating minutes. Imagine even considering the notion of trading him to improve at the deadline (please don’t read my tweets, they’re dumb).
Fred VanVleet joined Siakam at the career-high party, pouring in 30 points with five boards and six dimes on 11-of-22 from the field in his first game as the undisputed number-two point guard on Toronto’s roster. Apparently all Fred needed to rediscover his sharp wits with the ball in his hands was the absence of Delon Wright’s footsteps.
Kyle Lowry’s shot was wayward apart from a sequence in the third that featured a pair of beautiful in-rhythm triples (Siakam’s passing on the roll is getting scary, man), but he chipped in his customary bucket load of assists. For a time, he was on franchise record watch — he had 10 of the 20 dimes it would have required to pass Jose Calderon’s Raptors-best mark in the first 18 minutes of action. He finished with a measly 13. This game — and in particular the enormous mid-game swing — had Lowry’s DNA all over it; some sequences in the third crackled with the free and connected bliss this team achieves only when Lowry is doing the damn thing.
The scoreboard swing was so wild that “what to do about garbage time with nine players?” became a question worth asking. It was nice to ponder such relaxed problems on such an emotionally confusing and stakes-laden deadline day.
Things are about to get heavy. Marc Gasol’s arrival will signal the beginning of the most important few months in franchise history, with the future of Leonard and the Raptors’ status among the league’s elite very much on the line. Losses are going to have weight. Shit, wins won’t even feel great unless they illustrate growth in the Lowry-Kawhi-Gasol trios’ on-court relationship.
That’s why tonight’s game, in early February, against the plucky but bad Hawks, with all sorts of built-in excuses and no need to dig down into each possession to find meaning, will go down as one of the most enjoyable, vibrant and memorable games of this season — hell, maybe even the recent Raptors era. It was a reminder of the kind of unvarnished joy a sheer lack of expectations brought about last season, or in the weeks and months following Decemeber 8th, 2013. Enjoy this win, let it marinate and bask in it’s unlikely glow. The Gasol-era Raptors are going to be a thrill ride. But with all the stakes and tension it’ll come with, new-look Toronto may never drum up the kind of glee as tonight’s skeleton crew did — at least not before late May.