The Toronto Raptors needed a win. Coming off of two losses that seemed to be leading to some soul-searching or rotation tumult, anything short of a dominant victory against a lowly but spirited Atlanta Hawks team could have threatened the team’s psyche ahead of three days off, a gap that can sometimes be too long if it’s spent in one’s head.
Dwane Casey opted to go back to his primary starters, which makes sense even if everyone is a little worried about slow starts to halves. It’s going to take a while longer for a move like that to become permanent, and the Raptors tried to maximize that look by using Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas heavily on offense. That duo’s been more than fine offensively, and an apparent edict to get Valanciunas plenty involved early to get his rhythm back made sense. Valanciunas got an early look on a dive, had a mid-quarter elbow post-up called for him against Dewayne Dedmon, and was rewarded for an offensive rebound with a clear-out opportunity. It wasn’t perfect, with Valanciunas committing a couple of turnovers trying to catch dump-offs and Ibaka firing up six shots in six minutes while the stars hardly shot. It made sense to try.
It didn’t necessarily help the defense pick up, necessarily. Dedmon had a couple of nice touches but was a little too eager to shoot, and Dennis Schroder was always going to be a problem going downhill against the Raptors’ starters. Neither is ever at fault alone, it just continues to be a tough starting five to defend effectively with. The Raptors also made the odd decision of subbing Ibaka and Valanciunas out as a pair rather than staggering their minutes with more complementary pieces. Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl did bring a nice energy together, and Siakam and Fred VanVleet both had a pair of nice buckets toward the end of the quarter to take the lead back at 28-25.
What happened next, well, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Raptors bench went on an 8-0 run early in the second quarter followed closely by an 11-0 run. VanVleet quarterbacked the group well, finding Poeltl and Norman Powell for clean looks and knocking down a three from a Siakam pass, having a hand in all eight points on the first run, mand Powell scored eight himself in the second push. The Hawks went nearly three minutes without scoring thanks to energetic defense, including a Siakam block on Schroder and a steal on a pass through the paint, and by the time the Hawks tried to talk it over, their deficit had swelled from three to 19.
Casey rode with the bench group longer than usual, and when Kyle Lowry eventually subbed back in, he immediately hit a pair of threes, then found Siakam on an outlet. Right at home with a bench unit, as it turns out. VanVleet would eventually check out with a plus-27 mark in 11 minutes, Poeltl at plus-27 in 14 minutes, and Siakam a plus-31 in 16 minutes, as best a summary as you’re going to find for this half. The Raptors took a 28-point lead into the break, which even for them of late felt pretty secure. The question would be whether they took their foot off the gas again and let Atlanta back into it or tried to end it emphatically.
The starting bigs looked to have their own fun in the third, with the quarter opening with an Ibaka jumper, a Valanciunas dunk after sealing Marco Belinelli in semi-transition, and a Valanciunas bucket on a dump-off, sending the Hawks to an early timeout. An 8-0 run was eventually broken by a ludicrously deep Taurean Prince three, and then the Raptors went right back to work re-posting for Valanciunas to draw a foul. The starters continued to stretch the lead out, with OG Anunoby and Valanciunas in particular looking strong.
The stars accepted facilitating roles to keep the other starters getting theirs and feeling good, combining for 17 points, 15 rebounds, and 14 assists through three quarters. Had Valanciunas feeling light on love or confidence, a 12-point, five-rebound third quarter probably helped. DeRozan lost his streak of a 113 straight double-figure games, and it didn’t matter at all. Entering the fourth, every Raptor to play was at least a plus-10, and the starters had just won a quarter together quite handily. Hawks caveats apply and all, but it was about as well as things could have gone to that point.
Casey turned the 41-point lead over to the full-bench group in the fourth, and that eventually included a good chunk of run for Alfonzo McKinnie and Lucas Nogueira. Not only did the starters get held to a maximum of 28 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back – DeRozan’s knee is said to be fine after he banged it in the third, by the way – but all 12 players got to shake off any rust, and pretty much to a man, everyone had some good moments. A Nogueira three is always a good way to take a game home. Best of all, that deep bench group didn’t really let Atlanta flirt with momentum or even pad things by shrinking the final margin in any significant way.
Again, it went as well as the Raptors could have hoped. No, it doesn’t erase an embarrassing third-quarter performance against the New York Knicks or an unnecessary loss to the Indiana Pacers, nor does it act as a panacea for any issues the starting lineup may have been dealing with. There was always work to do even when the team was sitting pretty at 11-5, and they’ll have to continue to do that work as the schedule continues to provide some potential trap games against lesser teams. Still, the Raptors can only beat the team in front of them, and only respond in the environment they’re playing within. To that end, shaking off a pair of ugly games with a rousing buzzer-to-buzzer dismantling of any team, when the stars were able to kick back and do the little things rather than carry the scoring load, is the proper step back in the right direction.
The question now becomes how much they can iron out with plenty of practice time in an upcoming stretch that will see them play just three games in 13 days. This game was a head-clearer to enter that fortnight in a better mindset than they may have 24 hours ago.