As the Toronto Raptors are wont to do this season, they forced us to watch the game until the very end — whether you were hoping for a win or a loss. An otherworldly flurry of Malachi Flynn three-pointers made this one a particularly fun fake comeback, but it was fake, nonetheless. In the end, the Atlanta Hawks had built up a big enough cushion that four (!) late threes by Flynn were not enough to close the gap. The Raptors would go on to lose to Atlanta, 108-103.
With multiple significant players missing for both teams, this game felt like a night on Broadway when few of the regular cast are performing and the understudies fill the stage. The Hawks were without Trae Young, John Collins, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari. The Raptors, meanwhile, were missing Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, DeAndre’ Bembry and Paul Watson.
On those nights, you look to the remaining mainstays to carry the load. Pascal Siakam did his part tonight, but he was given little help. You also hope that the reserves are able to at least hold their own, or even have their own breakout with the new opportunity. In this case, unfortunately, the Raptors were left wanting, as, yes, players like Flynn — prior to his too-little-too-late three-point bonanza — struggled to step into the shoes of Lowry and VanVleet after a few games of admirable impressions.
While the Raptors’ front office sure looks like it might be orchestrating a sneaky tank, they have been given their most important players rest at times where it makes complete sense and maintaining at minimum a small air of mystery in their intentions.
Siakam and OG Anunoby are, at the very least, working their way back from an absence due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols in which they didn’t have any legitimate game reps. At worst, they had the coronavirus, which has affected NBA players’ lungs long after their tests starting reading negative. They were both given a night off on the opposite ends of a back-to-back, respectively, in an absurdly busy stretch of basketball for Toronto.
That theme has continued, as Lowry was given rest on his second potential game back from a toe injury, with a looming matchup coming against DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs the very next night. Would we bat an eye at any of these moves typically? Probably not. But in the context of this season from hell, these moves could illuminate that the team has decided that losing is their best course.
Although Siakam had an excellent first half, the Raptors still found themselves down by 12 after two quarters, a result of their absences in many ways. His 21 points and three assists were the only reliable source of the team’s offense. What’s more, Siakam finally got his midrange game working again. One of the biggest revelations of Siakam’s breakout was that touch from the midrange, but it has been notably absent from his game this year. To see a glimpse of it was a breath of fresh air.
To return to my somewhat strained Broadway metaphor, you also would hope that the cast can play off of each other well, displaying chemistry that can realistically only be built up over night-to-night repetition. Somewhat predictably, that chemistry just was not there for much of the first half for Toronto, particularly on defense, where the Raptors were disjointed and disconnected, allowing 66 points on over 50 percent shooting by the Hawks.
It was on that end that VanVleet and Lowry’s absence really stood out. VanVleet is so good at mucking up a possession before it even starts, and Lowry’s off-ball genius can so often bail the Raptors out in an otherwise failed defensive stand. Without those two, an undermanned Raptors squad just was not going to get it done on that end. That said, it didn’t help that Atlanta’s shotmakers came to play.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter combined to go 8-for-14 from three for 40 points, and Clint Capela was a beast in the middle. He had 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting to go with a Chris Boucher-esque 20 rebounds (Actual Boucher had only three rebounds for the evening). These guys always seemed to have an answer for any momentum the Raptors were able to muster. Their inability to get key stops simply killed Toronto in this one.
To maintain our sanity for the rest of the year, however, we must find victory in defeat. Siakam carried his energy through to the end, finishing with 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, while adding seven assists. It was an important bounce-back from him after his rough showing against the New York Knicks. Also, Flynn’s heroics at the end, late or not, were still cool to see — he finished with a new career-high of 22 points. And finally, Khem Birch was excellent in his role off the bench, going 5-of-6 for 13 points — one away from a career-high — and making his trademark hustle plays on both ends of the floor.
Considering the team’s roster construction and the fact that stakes are slowly dissipating from Toronto’s season, I see no reason why Birch shouldn’t have a chance as Toronto’s starting centre with what he’s shown. But perhaps that would make them too competent.
Whatever the direction of the team will prove to be, there is still plenty to learn from the Raptors this season, whether they continue to slide or make a spirited run at the playoffs. Although, if they continue to suit up without their full complement of players, the former may be what we see until season’s end.