Raptors get back on track with seamless win over Hawks

A nice bounce-back, save for a late slip of the foot off the gas.

Raptors 111, Hawks 98 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

The last time the Toronto Raptors dropped two games in a row, it was a visit to Atlanta that got them back on the right track, a 34-point drudging of the Hawks turning out to be just what they needed to rediscover their footing. Fast-forward a month, and that win kick-started quite a Raptors run against weak competition, only for another two-game skid to set in ahead of Atlanta visiting for a rematch.

A win wouldn’t assuage many concerns. A loss might feel catastrophic. If nothing else, it was an opportunity to cut through the clouds that a two-game skid can bring.

“That’s what good teams do. You don’t let a couple losses set you back from your long-term goal,” Kyle Lowry said. “It’s an NBA season, you’re going to have some ups and downs, but as long as you keep your downs short and get back to the ups quickly, things will be fine.”

The Raptors came out as they often do in these matchups, slowly feeling their way into the game while one or two players establish themselves. In this case, it was Jonas Valanciunas making a difference early, proving himself a presence not just on the glass but around both rims. He put up nine points and seven rebounds in the opening quarter and turned away two shots, and Dwane Casey rewarded the play with one of his longest first-quarter stints of the season (until a knee to the thigh required some quick locker room attention). C.J. Miles also got plenty of action early as he looked to find a groove back in with the starters. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were happy to play more secondary roles in the opening minutes, easing into their scoring roles and helping each other out as the situation called for.

Valanciunas and Miles didn’t exactly key a pull-away, though, as Toronto took some time to find a proper energy level on defense, conceding a couple of very clean looks to the Hawks. The Hawks aren’t exactly wont to knock those down with regularity, so even with kyle Lowry struggling to keep Dennis Schroder in front of him, Atlanta struggled to consistently execute. The Raptors’ bench beginning to trickle in late in the quarter exacerbated that, as the defensive energy shot through the roof in a hurry and the Hawks began fueling Toronto’s transition game with turnovers.

They’d finish the half with 13, and while the Raptors struggled to connect on a lot of those miscues, it kept Atlanta at bay. The Raptors’ bench was given an extended run by Casey thanks to that lock-down defense, and the reserves were flying everywhere to turn away Hawks’ shots. The late first and early second were another case of the good version of (most of) the bench getting in all of their spots, with Delon Wright producing steals, Jakob Poeltl making a few heady plays, Fred VanVleet finishing a shot he had little business finishing, and Pascal Siakam playing the best basketball you can play without scoring. When he followed that defense and playmaking up with a slump-busting triple and then another score inside, he’d played to a plus-15 in 11 minutes to help pull the Raptors ahead.

“I thought he (Wright) did an excellent job, that second unit came in and I thought they changed the tempo of the game, changed the rhythm of the game, as they usually do,” Casey said. “They did an excellent job tonight, especially when they came in that first stint.”

The starters took advantage of the extended rest, and after returning with a nearly complete five-man hockey-style change, DeRozan took over the scoring and briefly pushed the lead to 18. OG Anunoby also did this, which was excellent, because OG Anunoby is a very good basketball player.

Atlanta made a minor push-back of their own toward the end of the quarter, but a Miles triple kept Toronto ahead 15 at the break. Another three from Miles followed a half-opening triple from Anunoby and quickly pushed the lead to 20, and a sense of waiting for the proper time to sit the main players down kind of fell over the proceedings. It was evident that Casey was thinking similarly, not wanting Atlanta to claw back in and make it a single-digit game for a fourth-quarter closeout, as he quickly called a timeout to settle things after a mini-Hawks run midway through the quarter.

The message didn’t really take, and Atlanta legitimately threatened to take advantage of Toronto’s irreverence with a 9-0 run that some Hawks writers seemed amused and surprised by. Back-to-back DeRozan triples signaled that it probably wasn’t a run long for this world, and a Poeltl tip-in was followed by a Wright three to build the game’s biggest advantage up in a casual blink of the eye. Up 19 heading into the fourth, the Raptors had played to where one final push would mean garbage time, which would be valuable for Norman Powell to maybe build some confidence and Bruno Caboclo to get his first NBA run since October.

The low-leverage minutes for Powell did not deliver as hoped early in the quarter. The bench group once again struggled to produce offense, with traps against VanVleet proving effective, Powell missing some good looks, and the quality of look generally being too low even after plenty of clock was eaten up. The defense was still solid – the Raptors bench produced 10 of the team’s 15 blocks in this game and had a terrific 78.3 defensive rating as a fivesome – and Powell’s frustration eventually boiled in a positive manner, as he tore an offensive rebound away for a put-back and-foul.

Wright followed with a fun dunk, though Casey opted to leave nothing to chance and but Lowry and Anunoby back in to make sure things closed out smoothly. Lucas Nogueira got his first non-garbage run in some time, too, and immediately connected on a lob from Powell, and then another. Those were about the only points the Raptors managed in a sloppy and somewhat lazy few minutes, allowing Atlanta to go on a 12-4 run, necessitating a DeRozan re-entry, and turning what should have been a third-unit stretch run into a legitimate 10-point, four-minute endgame. Lowry’s defense, in particular, was just not there, and no Raptor had an answer for Taurean Prince, a nice prospect who should not be giving a top-ten defense fits for 35 minutes.

Things looked bleak out of a timeout thanks to a pair of missed Lowry threes. Nogueira saved both, putting the second miss back. Shortly after, it was Wright on put-back duty after a Lowry miss. The Hawks were about out of time at that point, Lowry called it a night, and Nogueira’s emphatic block on a dump-off to Tyler Cavanaugh would have been a tidy piece of punctuation had Anunoby not followed it up with one more steal for a coast-to-coast dunk. Because that play came with the shot-clock off and the game sealed, it was cause for a bit of a post-game commotion.

It was a solid, if unspectacular, all-around game. The removal of the foot from the gas in the fourth quarter was disappointing, and even then, the Raptors still held Atlanta to 97.2 points per-100 possessions. Offensively, nine different players hit threes for the second time this season, the Raptors cruised to 111 points on a night where Lowry was cold and they barely got to the free-throw line. Perhaps most importantly, the return of Wright and Miles seems to have stabilized a bench that appeared to be hitting a wall, a paramount consideration as the schedule turns both more difficult and  more compressed in January.

A game against the 9-26 Hawks was never going to ease any concerns that came up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are not that kind of proving ground, no matter how much respect the Raptors will talk about treating each opponent with. They were once again a nice opportunity to rebound and avoid a three-game losing streak and to get some positive feeling back ahead of a tough Milwaukee game on Monday. The Raptors will be looking to tie the longest home winning streak in franchise history (12 games) in that one, by the way, and that note really perked up DeRozan’s ears.

“It just means everything to be able to continue what we’re doing at home,” he said. “We’ve got to use that as our backbone, to come home, take care of home. It’s big for us. We play, what, 41 games at home? Why not try to win 40 if we can and have that type of momentum?”

This one will be by far the toughest on the streak yet.

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