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Five thoughts on yesterday afternoon: Raptors 122, Hawks 117

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Norman Powell rescued a lifeless game, but then dead legs almost gave it away. Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and move on, yes?

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 122, Atlanta Hawks 117, Fred VanVleet Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Once again, we must beg the basketball gods to spare us from mid-afternoon games!

Now, you’d think that the Raptors, as such a notoriously young team, would have fresh legs, even playing their third game in four days. Alas, they did not, and absolutely sleepwalked (sleptwalked?) through three quarters yesterday. Normally, that’d spell disaster, but they were playing the Atlanta Hawks, who, young or old, afternoon or night, are just plain terrible.

It seemed like the Raptors just needed one little spark to generate a win... and boy, did they get it.

Somebody Hose off Norm

It’s been a minute since we’ve seen a Raptor catch fire like that, hasn’t it? Maybe since Fred VanVleet’s Finals performance? Norman Powell was in the zone.

Some of those three-pointers Powell hit yesterday were just absolutely unconscious. I mean, I like Norm, and I root for him, and I love seeing guys catch fire like that... But even I was cringing at some of those shots. There’s no universe in which this is a good shot, with the defense bunched up around him and 18 seconds on the shot clock:

And yet, it was absolute money. And the next (and final) make, one-on-one against Vince Carter? That one, everyone in the building knew was coming, and there was nothing Vince could do to stop it.

There’s not much else about this game that I enjoyed or was memorable, but that performance — four straight made threes, in the span of 2:05 — I will not soon forget.

Know When to Hold ‘em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Nick Nurse let his all-bench unit stay on the floor in the fourth yesterday, well past the time he’d normally let the starters back in.

The reason why is obvious: Led by Powell, the unit was rolling, so why not let them close it out?

But this is one of the reasons why I don’t envy NBA coaches. That seems like an easy decision, but you have to weigh this precarious balance, as we saw last night: You want to reward the bench guys for their strong play, by letting them close it out. But if the bench guys run out of steam and the other team makes a run, you have to bring your starters back. But if you’ve let them sit too long, and they’re cold and stiff, is that actually worse than tired bench players? Do you let the bench players play through it? Do you risk injury to a starter who’s stiffened up?

It’s an impossible choice. Nurse almost came out on the wrong side of it yesterday, waiting until 1:40 to bring some starters back, and then finally putting Kyle Lowry back on the floor a minute later.

You could argue that Nurse should have put Fred VanVleet, Lowry or Marc Gasol back in at the 3:08 mark, when Atlanta cut the lead to 15 and Nurse called timeout. But again, it’s a tough choice to make; ultimately I think he made the right call.

Although, who he left in when the starters returned may need some scrutiny...

Oh, Look, I’m Complaining about Pat McCaw Again

Patrick McCaw played 22 minutes yesterday, which again feels like about seven too many. Thing is, he was decent when he was out there! (For a while.) He forced a couple of turnovers, and made a couple of great passes (including a nifty over-the-top pass to Ibaka on the screen-and-roll, and that nice fast-break dump-off to Terence Davis for a jam). He even broke the defense down on a couple of drives, one leading to a layup, the other to a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dunk.

And, of course, he was part of the bench unit that brought the team back and gave them a 21-point lead.

But, for a guy who’s supposed to be a strong defensive player, he was just unconscionably bad against Trae Young down the stretch. I’ll get into this more on the next thought, but this one really has me scratching my head. Nick Nurse has shown that the quickest way into his doghouse is a poor defensive effort, and yet, McCaw is consistently left in the dust — only to return and play 20+ minutes the next night.

With a fully healthy squad of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, not to mention the statistically superior Terence Davis, there just shouldn’t be that many minutes available for Patrick McCaw.

Unleash Fred VanVleet

Fred VanVleet showed in the NBA Finals that he’s a pretty damn good defender against small, quick, playmaking guards with range. You remember, when he gave Steph Curry headaches for like four straight games?

So why wasn’t he guarding Young down the stretch? Fred came back on the floor with 1:40 to go, and yet McCaw continued on Young. You know what happened: a blow-by for a layup on the first possession, and on the next, Young walked past McCaw at half speed into the lane for a floater. After that? Young beat McCaw at halfcourt, forcing the rest of the defense to help, and Young found Collins for a layup. Even on the next play, when the game was (finally) essentially out of reach, Young still blew by McCaw and found Bruno Fernando for a dunk.

Young is an absolute handful and there’s no guarantee VanVleet would have had any more success. But still, shouldn’t you at least try to put another, proven defender on Young, when the guy you’ve been using is getting torched?

A Taste of Their Own Medicine...?

Much in the way Toronto’s trouble executing against zone defenses has been confusing (since the Raptors employ one of the most effective zones themselves) the Raptors’ inability to break Atlanta’s late press was also perplexing (since again, the Raptors’ press has been awesome).

Or, maybe it wasn’t. The Raps didn’t have their best ball handlers and passers on the floor at first, as noted above. Even when they did, they had Powell inbounding the basketball, and as much as I love Norm and his recent play, his decision making can still be a bit suspect (and he’s never been much of passer).

Had the Raptors had Lowry and Gasol out there earlier, I don’t think Atlanta’s press would have caused any issues at all. Much like the struggles against the zone — all of which happened when the Raptors were missing Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Powell and Matt Thomas, zone-busters all — this really isn’t anything to worry about.

But I would have to imagine it’s satisfying for other teams who’ve seen the Raptors break games open by employing the same tricks!

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That's a tidy (well, OK, somewhat messy) four-game win-streak the Raptors are on. Hopefully yesterday's sluggish play was just the afternoon doldrums, and everyone has shaken off the rust and is ready to make a run. Following tomorrow’s tilt with Philly, the Raptors play six straight against losing teams — prime time to take over that two-seed.