Nearly a year after Masai Ujiri coined the phrase, the Toronto Raptors have made good on the concept: play-in for what, indeed?
Boasting a 30-16 record since the calendar turned, the Raptors’ continuous rise up the Eastern Conference standings was paid off tonight. Thanks to a 118-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks, coupled with a Cleveland Cavaliers loss to the Orlando Magic, the Raptors have locked in a top six seed to ensure they won’t be any part of the play-in tournament.
Now they await their first-round opponent, while continuing to chase the Chicago Bulls for the fifth seed and, possibly, a better matchup.
If you could sum up tonight’s game, it was a dreamy take on a playoff preview. While the Raptors, in all likelihood, won’t be playing the Hawks in the post-season, they ran into all the issues you might be worried about heading into that slow-down, knock-around style of hoops. The three-point shot refused to fall for Toronto — Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet combined to go 3-for-18 and the team shot just 9-for-35 as a whole. The bench players thrown in for instant gratification, Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn, failed to tread water in limited minutes.
Missed shots and a limited rotation are exactly the two things keeping Raptors fans up at night with the playoffs two weeks away — so how did they win on Tuesday against a team on a five-game winning streak?
Two things: defense and the fulcrum that is Pascal Siakam.
Siakam was excellent in all areas against the Hawks, providing all the offensive spark needed with his backcourt teammates struggling to find the range. Playing a game-high 40 minutes (the Raptors needed every second), Siakam had 31 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block. With VanVleet struggling to shoot all night, more work was pushed through Pascal. This meant running point guard in bench lineups with the chaos agents — Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Scottie Barnes — while adjusting to work more in the flow of the offense with the starters. Siakam showed the entire bag: finishing through contact, posting up, skip passes to open shooters, high-low feeds to the bigs, even finding cutters within the paint.
It was a clinic, and even the minutes down the stretch when Atlanta put their best defenders in Clint Capela and Deandre Hunter on him, Siakam was able to adjust and find ways to be effective. It was his pass that set up the game’s dagger — a VanVleet three, his 19th in the clutch this season, breaking a game-long drought to lock up the win.
Fred’s shot capped a 16-5 run for Toronto that essentially got rolling when VanVleet stopped calling his own number and the ball started finding Siakam at the start of sets again.
Pascal’s frontcourt buddies carried a lot of water too. Barnes had a monstrous line of 19 points and 14 rebounds, six of the latter on the offensive end, as he and the rest of the Raptors frontline made life a living hell for Clint Capela.
Not so much outworked as he was outnumbered, Capela spent most of the night jumping with two white jerseys leaping with him and one more waiting underneath, as the Raptors tipped and poked and prodded, finding all sorts of ways to keep possessions alive. Winning the rebounding battle 60-43 begins to give you an idea of how the Raptors balanced the books on Atlanta, even in a game where the Hawks made five more threes than Toronto.
The stat line bears it out individually, too. Khem Birch had one of his best games of the season with five points and eight boards in 24 minutes, proving a decent foil for the outstanding Trae Young-Capela pick and roll connection. Precious Achiuwa had 11 points and was a game-high +21. Chris Boucher kept a Siakam-less bench lineup alive thanks to two three-pointers early in the fourth, on his way to 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
Young led Atlanta with 26 points and 15 assists, while Hunter added 20 and Kevin Heurter drained five threes on his way to 21 points.
In short, albeit this coming against the Hawks, the Raptors showed just how far their frontcourt has come in their ability to carry the team when VanVleet and Trent Jr. don’t have it. By getting on the glass, scampering around on defense, and running everything through Siakam — the Raptors showed they have multiple ways to win a game, which is exactly what you want to see three games before the playoffs begin.