In my preview for the Raptors-Hawks game, I noted that it was going to be a very rare occasion, as the Raptors were going to be fully healthy for the first time in months. Masai Ujiri spit in my face and traded away a third of the rotation, including the beloved and divisive big man, Jonas Valanciunas. It’s tough to say the Raptors were up against it, as the Hawks aren’t particularly good at taking advantage of shorthanded teams. Even so, Kawhi Leonard took a rest in this one, and the Raptors marched on with 9 players to choose from.
*If you’re interested, here’s a short about Marc Gasol doing some humanitarian work*
Nick Nurse rallied the troops and demanded all hands on deck. Similar demands were made of the Hawks players, who responded a lot sooner. The Hawks rained down hellfire on the Raptors in the first half, knocking in 13 triples – 5 of them coming from noted “quality wing” Taurean Prince – and went up by a whopping 17-points by the middle of the second quarter. The Hawks were generating good looks and hitting some absurd ones. The Raptors deployed their zone-defense to try and stop the bleeding, but the Hawks dissected it fairly quick.
Beating the (lacklustre) zone. Tough look for Jordan Loyd.
Kyle Lowry dropped 11 dimes in the first half, poking and prodding at the Hawks defense and finding holes. Pascal Siakam gifted Lowry with some assists, because man, Siakam was hooping. He took 14 shots in the first half as most of the scoring/creation fell to him. He took all of his three point attempts in the first half (hitting two) and when he wasn’t bailing the team out from beyond the arc, he was shaking and shimmying past John Collins/Dewayne Dedmon/Omari Spellman for high difficulty shots.
One of the blessings of Siakam’s game is that he has a deep respect for good shots. He takes really good shots, cutting out the mid-range almost entirely (more on that later, though) and getting to the hoop with regularity. It’s important to note that while his shot chart can look really pretty, he’s taking loads of contact at the rim and finishing at unconscionable angles to earn his buckets. Usually when a player is as fast as Siakam is, their touch at the rim can be quite firm, since they’re arriving at the rim with a lot of pace. However, Siakam drops his shoulder lower or higher (depending on the defense) and kisses the ball off the glass with baby-soft grace. The Raptors really pushed their luck in this one, handing him the ball and saying “give me a damn bucket” and he answered with aplomb.
Outside of Siakam’s brilliance, Fred VanVleet was extremely adept at finding crevices to attack in the Hawks defense. He generally plays so much better when he can work off of Lowry, and he did just that last night. He didn’t attack with his head down, choosing to work in a fashion closer to D’angelo Russell (ward off the defender with your hips, put them in jail, wait for the opening and slice into it) and it worked wonders. VanVleet was exceptional alongside Lowry and Siakam in the first half. After a decent surge at the end of the second – and a technical foul – the Raptors crept within 8 points.
Lowry came out ready to press the issue in the second half and took over a larger part of the offense. Siakam took the rest on offense and expended it on the defensive end. Playing a huge role in a terrific second half defense from the Raptors. Lowry and Siakam were particularly good at running the Hawks off the 3-point line. A lot of the Hawks players aren’t comfortable working in the mid-range and limits their ability to create in the second half of actions – something we see happen with Anunoby, and in the past, Siakam. The Hawks offense really bogged down, falling to their two main creators, Collins and Trae Young, who accounted for over half the Hawks shot attempts in the quarter, and nearly 80-percent of their makes. The Raptors climbed all the way back to grab the lead before the third quarter ended.
Siakam and Lowry ran a really nice DHO midway through the third:
It could be a stretch, but this is a massive step for Siakam going forward in his career and Lowry, for his year. Siakam becoming a dynamic screen-setter is one of the ways he can emulate Draymond Green (who he can surpass on offense), who provides value despite his obvious shooting limitations and doesn’t possess a shred of Siakam’s finishing ability. Lowry being able to capitalize on these actions is BIG news with Gasol coming in. There’s going to be a sizeable amount of DHO’s run through the hands of Gasol – who is a terrific passer – and the implications a play like this has for “playoff Lowry” are huge. Plays like this engineer spacing for Lowry, who’s not as capable taking people off the dribble as he used to be.
On Siakam’s big night, he displayed a myriad of different talents and tools. He held it down in the backup-center role. We know him to be one of the league’s most versatile and effective defenders. We know he can shake and shimmy with the best of them, rocking his shoulders back and forth before slicing to the bucket and dropping the ball in from a hundred different angles. Most importantly though (for his development, anyway), he showcased creation in the mid-range. The mid-range is the worst shot in basketball, but the sport isn’t binary, there’s lots of options. When great players have to get a bucket, they get it from wherever they can, and that’s not always going to be at the rim, or the 3-point line. Siakam took Vince Carter off the dribble on the wing. The shot-clock was below five, the game was within 10-points in the 4th quarter, and he busted out the triple-threat and stepped it back from mid-range. He posted a career high (33) and looked every part of a major bucket-getter.
The rest of the game wasn’t particularly exciting, as the Raptors ran away with it, eventually winning by 18. By far the most fun aspect of the night was Siakam’s incredible display. He’s so capable at so many things, and really has a claim to elite-status at many others. The Raptors held it down against a lowly Eastern Conference opponent, and take a 3-game winning streak into New York. In the ‘Big Apple’ we’ll likely see Marc Gasol ‘don’ the Raptors jersey for the first time, and all collectively cross our fingers that he’s capable of replicating earlier seasons of his own. This trade will really test Nurse’s mettle as coach. Gasol-Siakam-Ibaka won’t be an easy front-court to maximize, we’ll see how this thing goes. Hope springs eternal, and dreams dry like raisins in the burnin’ sun.
Have a blessed day.