Last night’s game was both the Raptors’ best win of the season, and the strangest of the year. Down their premier wing defender in OG Anunoby and up against a historically great collection of offensive talent, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam led the way to an upset win with 63 combined points, taking advantage of the Nets’ lack of interior defense in the process. And even with solid numbers from bench players like one-time sixth-man Kevin Durant, the Raptors’ stifling star-player defense managed to hold James Harden and Kyrie Irving to 32 combined points while forcing them into 10 turnovers. Basketball-wise, a wonderful game.
Non-basketball-wise, not so much. The aforementioned sixth-man and one-of-greatest-players-ever Durant entered midway through the first quarter, having been forced to sit due to health and safety protocols. But everything was presumably fine since, you know, he cleared the protocols. Only... it wasn’t? He was pulled in the third quarter, once again due to health and safety protocols, as there was increased concern about a positive COVID test for a potential contact of Durant’s. All this to say: the league needs to tighten up these protocols. I’m not saying anything new here, but if Durant hypothetically had COVID during this game, there were a whole lot of people he could’ve spread it to. Only so many things can be controlled, but Durant’s status for this game was one of them.
Hopefully, this debacle is nothing more than a learning experience for the NBA, everyone is healthy, and the Raptors are able to continue playing basketball. Especially since they’re starting to look pretty good! Siakam’s playing with more confidence, Lowry continues to build on his unassailable GROAT resume, Fred VanVleet scored 54 bloody points in one game (all while playing All-Defense level on the other end), and Norman Powell is on a tear. This team would kick the December Raptors’ ass.
Next up for the Raptors are the Atlanta Hawks, led by All-Star point guard Trae Young, who have an identical 10-12 record tying the Raptors for sixth in the east. But while the Raptors are currently trending up and riding a three-game winning streak, the Hawks have lost three straight. Granted, those losses came against the Jazz, Mavericks, and Lakers, but over the first quarter of this seasons the Hawks have been beating the bad teams and usually losing to the good ones. Perhaps this game will tell us which category the Raptors fall in.
Here are tonight’s details.
Where to Watch
TSN, 8:00 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Atlanta – Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, John Collins, Clint Capela
Toronto – OG Anunoby (out - calf), Patrick McCaw (out - knee)
Atlanta – Bogdan Bogdanovic (out - knee), De’Andre Hunter (out - knee), Kris Dunn (out - ankle), Trae Young (questionable - calf), Kevin Huerter (probable - ankle), Onyeka Okongwu (questional - achilles)
Playing Through Pascal
The game is slowing down for Siakam, who’s scored 30+ in three of the Raptors’ last four games. Granted, those totals have come against the lowly defenses of Brooklyn, Orlando, and Sacramento, but we’ve seen Siakam’s confidence rise throughout this season. In the first Orlando game, Siakam tore right through their one-on-one defense en route to 30 points and a win. The following game, Siakam’s improvement as a passer allowed him to punish the Magic for their aggressive double-teams, leading him to pick up eight assists (and helping Fred in his quest for 54).
Siakam will take what the Hawks’ defense gives him: if they challenge him one-on-one with no over-helping defender, look for Pascal to attack off the dribble and use his quickness to get to the basket. If the Hawks make Siakam their main concern on defense and double him, the Raptors will need him to make quick reads and smart passes that lead to an open shot, as he’s been doing. His three-pointer hasn’t been falling, with just two of his last 26 attempts being converted, but it’s encouraging to see Siakam not forcing up shots and playing much more in the flow of the game.
The Raptors have had their bouts of poor defense this year, sometimes for halves of games, sometimes for an entire week. The team’s defensive energy has risen as of late (and the rotation seems non-coincidentally to be solidifying), which is promising, but more consistency on that front would go a long way for this team. The Raptors turned it up against the Nets, forcing 18 turnovers for 26 fast break points — that kind of defensive disruption will give them more opportunities to get much-needed points in transition.
The Raptors’ — and especially Fred VanVleet’s — task against the Hawks will be to make life difficult for Trae Young. Nick Nurse’s team is bound to attempt its usual thing in stifling an opponent’s star and forcing their supporting cast to win the game, but the Raptors will have to be careful around Young, who’s gained some notoriety for his penchant for drawing fouls. The Hawks attempt the third-most free throws per game in the league, while the Raptors average the third-most personal fouls per game. The Raptors will have to be a bit cautious against Young, and hopefully keep the reach-ins and, uh, bump-from-behind fouls to a minimum.
The Raptors’ roster is thin this year, especially with OG Anunoby in street clothes. While players like DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe, and Stanley Johnson have displayed good defense and hustle, none of them are real scoring threats. Terence Davis has more burst, but also adds a great deal of sloppiness on both sides of the ball.
Aside from Boucher’s 17, the Raptors’ bench scored just five points against Brooklyn, all coming from Bembry in 25 minutes. With the starters playing like they did last night, the limited bench scoring was fine. But tonight, the Raptors are in game two of a back-to-back, and Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet, each played 38+ minutes, while Powell played 36. A Watanabe three here and a Stanley Johnson putback there could help cover for a likely fatigued starting unit.