After a weird game against the Brooklyn Nets last night, the Toronto Raptors flew to Atlanta to face the well-rested Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks losers of three straight and the Raptors winners of three straight, it looked like Toronto might be able to squeeze a win tonight. But tired legs caught up to them right away, as their perimeter shooting abandoned them, and they looked half-a-step slower on defense, losing the game 132-121.
Coach Nick Nurse might have found the formula to keep Trae Young away from the perimeter, as he only attempted four three-pointers. Still, it doesn’t help when you send him to the line fourteen times, which helped him finish with 28 points. But credit to the Hawks, as they received solid contributions from other key players, including Clint Capela’s stellar 23 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks.
The Raptors’ offense just laboured through most of the night, as they mainly relied upon transition opportunities and second-chance points. It didn’t help that Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam combined to shoot for 10-for-31, or that their most effective offensive weapon on the night was a Chris Boucher putback (Boucher, by the way, put up a career-high 29 points).
The Raptors started the game slow, hitting only two of their first seven shots. However, the Hawks failed to take advantage as they played just as sloppy. Coach Nurse focused on defending Trae Young and his perimeter exploits. The strategy to get the ball out of Young’s hands via hedging or trapping on pick-and-roll/pop actions led to three straight productive possessions early for the Hawks, with John Collins hitting back-to-back three-pointers and Clint Capela scoring at the rim.
The Raptors’ balanced attack kept them abreast with Lowry, Siakam, and Powell aggressively looking to score. A 5-0 run by Powell propelled them to their first lead at 23-19. The Raptors held Young to two points in five attempts in the first, with only one coming from behind the arc. However, the Raptors’ defense showed some glaring holes once the ball was out of his hands. The VanVleet + bench crew looked shaky to end the quarter, allowing the Hawks to cut a 31-23 lead to three. VanVleet responded with a high arcing rainbow that pushed the Raptors lead to 34-28 at the end of the period.
The Raptors may have left their defense in Brooklyn, as they could not keep up with the Hawks’ ball movement. The Lowry+bench lineup’s offence sputtered at times. Their defensive breakdowns allowed easy points for the Hawks’ bench unit, including multiple three-pointers from random dudes like Tony Snell and Solomon Hill. A Hawks run put them within two points, 46-44, prompting Nurse to put most of his starters in.
Kevin Huerter’s three-pointer soon gave Hawks their lead back and the momentum as well. The Raptors’ offence lost their rhythm, and the Hawks took advantage, with Young leading the charge. He showed better composure against the Raptors’ defense this time. Young picked them apart, scoring or assisting in five of their next seven possessions, putting the Hawks up 57-52 with three minutes left before the end of the half. The starters stopped the bleeding on the defensive end, and between Siakam and Powell, they were able to keep the game close, as they entered the half trailing the Hawks 66-63.
The Hawks opened the second half with a 7-0 run, pushing their lead to 73-63, and the Raptors’ stagnant offence and lifeless defense led Nurse to call a timeout just 90 seconds into the half. Powell responded with a 6-0 run, and a putback by Siakam cut the Hawks’ lead to 71-73, forcing coach Lloyd Pierce to call a timeout. The Hawks responded with their own 11-2 run.
The Raptors struggled to shoot outside of the restricted area, going 2-8 from beyond the arc in the third, with nothing coming from their half-court offence. Boucher provided a much-needed offensive burst for the Raptors in the quarter, racking up 11 quick points, pulling the Raptors closer, 82-87. The Hawks continued to gain the upper hand, as they took advantage of the penalty situation, sending Young to the line three straight times. That was enough to get him in rhythm, as he followed that up with his first three-point make, pushing their lead to 96-88. VanVleet kept the Raptors within striking distance, scoring the last seven points, with the Raptors trailing 101-94.
The final frame saw the Raptors and the Hawks exchange baskets, but the Hawks gaining the upper hand because of their perimeter shots. A Huerter three-pointer pushed the Hawks lead to 112-103. The Raptors’ most reliable offence tonight — pray for Boucher to get a putback — was so effective, as he beat his career-high on the following play, notching his 27th point.
VanVleet finally broke their funk from the perimeter as he hit a three-pointer after checking back into the game, cutting the lead 110-116 with five minutes left. A Trae Young trifecta was sandwiched by a couple of empty Raptors possessions; with less than three minutes to go, the Raptors were running out of time. A Lowry three-pointer got them within 114-119, but a blown fast break by Siakam led to a Capela alley-oop. Huerter’s dagger three-pointer with 53 seconds remaining pushed the lead to 126-116, and that was the game.
The loss against the Hawks moved the Raptors tied with the Hornets for the eighth seed and put more pressure on them to perform well during this road trip. Instead of solidifying their position on the bottom half of the playoff picture, they could see themselves on the outside as the schedule gets tougher for the rest of the month.
The Raptors look to bounce-back as they continue their season-high six-game road trip against the electrifying Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, February 8th.