The Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks had played just over a week ago, a game that appeared to be a runaway for the Raptors in the fourth before a late push by the Hawks tightened the final score to 122-117.
Since then, both teams have seen their top players, Pascal Siakam and Trae Young respectively, recognized as All-Star starters. While they are even in that regard, these two teams are close in little else. Going into this one, the Raptors sat at 32-14, good for third in the East and in the midst of a seven-game win streak. For Atlanta, only the Golden State Warriors had a worse record in the NBA.
Unlike their last meeting, this game reflected that disparity and the Raptors out-executed the Hawks from top-to-bottom and finished the game winning 130-114 for their eighth straight. The Raptors took care of the ball, winning the turnover battle and losing it only 13 times while the Hawks coughed it up 18 times. They also took advantage of sloppy Hawks defense, constantly dissecting their opponent for easy buckets. The most notable part of this one, however, came when Kyle Lowry made another entry in the Raptors history books.
Lowry has spent this season cementing his status as the greatest Raptor of all time, based on his overall body of work with the team. It is fitting that the team’s record books start reflecting his greatness and productivity. In the fourth quarter, he threw a very Lowry-esque touchdown pass to Terence Davis, who had just slipped behind the defense and proceeded to catch the perfectly placed ball and finish with ease, giving Lowry his record setting 3771st assist with the Toronto Raptors.
Lowry then turned around and, clearly well aware of what he had just accomplished, flashed a genuine smile that showed how much he appreciated the moment. We’ve seen a similar smile a few times before, specifically when it was clear the Raptors would beat the Milwaukee Bucks and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals, and when he hit a half-court buzzer beater in game one of the 2016 Miami Heat series to send the game to overtime. In a sport when guys are often told to “act like they’ve been there before,” it’s nice to see a guy just enjoy and appreciate the moments where he simply has not been there before.
The tone leading up to the game made it clear that the NBA remains shaken from Kobe Bryant’s death, the tragic event that rocked the sports world on Sunday. Perhaps no person influences today’s players more so than Kobe, and the responses from the players have magnified the impact that he had. The number of players who have personal relationships with Bryant is astonishing and a testament to Bryant’s commitment to the game.
Norman Powell, who wears number 24 and is fresh off of a summer working with Kobe, wore a hoodie with “Kobe and Gigi” on the back with the infinity symbol under their names to the game – a tribute to the lasting legacy Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who were both killed in the crash. Trae Young, the point guard for the Atlanta Hawks, was Gianna’s favourite player, and was devastated by Sunday’s events. He had an outstanding game on Sunday following the news, which he dedicated to Bryant.
Following a video tribute to Kobe and a moment of silence, the game was underway.
The disparity between the two teams was obvious from the jump. Defensively, the Hawks simply did not look connected, and the Raptors preyed on their lapses with cuts and ball movement on their way to 33 first quarter points. Marc Gasol, typically one to set the table rather than finish, led the Raptors with ten first quarter points. He hit two threes, and following a pump fake, took a few Spanish Steps and threw down a rare Statue of Liberty dunk. Unfortunately, Gasol would later leave the game as a result of the same hamstring that bothered him earlier this season.
In their most recent matchup, Trae Young gave the Raptors fits en route to a 42 point performance. In the first half, they bottled him up effectively, limiting him to only six points. If not for a hot start for Hawks centre John Collins, who had 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting and 6-of-6 from the free throw line, the Raptors’ lead would be even larger. Still, at halftime, the Raptors were up 68-56. Although Collins would cool off, tacking on only eight more for the rest of the game, he still led the Hawks in scoring with 28.
Pascal Siakam entered the third quarter in attack-mode, and carried the momentum that he built in the Spurs game into this one. He made a concerted effort to get to the rim, and was successful, with all 12 of his third quarter points coming in shots in the restricted area or on free throws that resulted from his drives. The third was the last we would see of Siakam, though it was enough for him to lead the Raptors with 24 points. Even though Trae Young was able to match Siakam’s 12 in the frame, the Raptors grew their lead to 14 by the end of the third.
Unfortunately, it was this quarter where Marc Gasol left, aggravating the hamstring injury that he sustained back in December against the Pistons. The Raptors have not lost since Gasol’s return, and the statistics suggest this is no coincidence. The Raptors are vastly better with Gasol on the floor, and another extended absence would sting a Raptors team that was finally healthy.
The Raptors went on a dominant run to start the fourth quarter. That run included Lowry’s record-breaking assist, and it virtually put the game away for good. This time, the Hawks would not mount enough of a comeback to make this one close, and the Raptors were able to coast to the finish.
It was great to see Lowry get hold of a prestigious record, and we wish Marc Gasol a speedy recovery. Here’s to hoping the Raptors can maintain this momentum into their next one against the Cleveland Cavaliers.