Powell having his moment | Trade tricks, rankings, and reports | Movin’ on up in the power rankings
One — Wild: This was not a pretty game by any means, but it was certainly entertaining. The Raptors started strong but fell into a deep slump in the second quarter where they shot 2-of-14 from deep. Fortunately, the Hawks just aren’t very good, and the Raptors were able to stay close by forcing the issue and getting to the rim. An explosive run by Norman Powell created a 21-point lead, but the Hawks made life miserable down the stretch with a full-court press that nearly flipped the game.
Young certainly gave the Raptors problems. He moves like a drop of mercury on a glass table, his feet barely touching the floor except when he’s getting ready to launch a three from anywhere inside the half-court logo. He can rifle passes in traffic or lob them gently above the fray.
It was almost enough. Young finished with 42 points and 15 assists, on paper out-playing Lowry, who stumbled after his quick start, ending up with 10 points and seven assists in just 29 minutes.
“He’s pretty good, he has the ball in his hands a lot but he’s making the right decisions, the right plays. For 21 his usage is crazy but he can handle it right now,” said Lowry. “He’s playing unbelievable right (now). He’s playing with confidence, with assertiveness that you need to be that guy on your team and he’s going to continue to get better.”
But on an afternoon when it would have been easy for a veteran team to mail it in, Lowry was on the grind early.
And when the Raptors’ second unit was the group that finally found enough momentum to seemingly split the game open early in the fourth quarter it was Lowry who cheered every deflection and sprinted onto the floor at the timeout to pump-up rookie Terence Davis after a big three-pointer. He almost knocked over Powell when the Raptors’ bench-scoring machine knocked down his fourth triple of the second half to put the Raptors up nine with 7:37 to play. When Powell hit another – this time facing up Vince Carter in isolation – Lowry was only one of a crowd of Raptors celebrating.
In the end it was all enough for the win that was easy at the start but hard fought after that.
Once the team bus arrived the odds were overwhelmingly in Toronto’s favour as the 10-win Hawks have often shown themselves uninterested in competing most games. They lost by 33 to a fast-sliding Detroit Pistons team on Saturday night. They rank 29th in the league in offence, 26th on defence and have lost an NBA-high 21 games by 10 points or more. The Raptors have lost just six games by 10. The Hawks have given up 120 points or more 20 times and are 2-18 when they do. They are 0-8 when they give up 130 or more.
Those who watch them on a regular basis would say they just don’t compete often enough or hard enough when they do. Taken a step further — a team built around the ball-dominant talents of a player like Young, who gives little on defence — has painted itself into a corner when it comes to squeezing every ounce out of a roster. It will be interesting to watch.
A Collins dunk brought the Hawks within 15 with about three minutes to go, and a 3-pointer by Reddish made it 114-103 at the 2:06 mark. Young scored 18 points in the fourth, adding a deep 3 as the Hawks, trailing by seven, forced a turnover to get the ball back with 1:32 to go. A cutting layup by Collins pulled the Hawks within two, but with 14.2 seconds to play, Collins fouled Fred VanVleet on a 3-point attempt and VanVleet made all three free throws, which helped seal the win for the Raptors. “Tough foul,” said Collins, who also fouled out on the play. “I definitely thought he leaned out a little bit with his hips. But contact was made.” VanVleet, who added 20 points, went 5-for-5 from the line in the final 30 seconds, stalling the Hawks’ surge. “Our aggression, our pressure, our defensive effort,” Collins said of what allowed the Hawks to make a late comeback. “We got after them. I think we surprised them a little bit with how much we still had left in the tank. We made a nice run. We competed.”
With the Raptors melting down against pressure defense from Atlanta, Young scored four more points in three (yes, three) seconds and the Hawks were within a single possession at 114-111. Toronto finally stabilized, ceasing the monsoon of turnovers, but the Hawks were still able to slash the margin to two with 34.5 seconds remaining. The back-breaker then arrived when Collins fouled out on a three-shot foul against VanVleet, who knocked down the trio of free throws to put Toronto up 120-115 with 14.2 seconds left.
Individually, Young led the way for Atlanta, scoring 42 points (including 18 of 21 from the free throw line) and dishing out a season-high 15 assists. Collins notched a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, with Hunter (11 points, six rebounds), Reddish (13 points, eight rebounds) and Fernando (12 points, four rebounds) making substantial contributions.
And while Fred VanVleet was far from efficient, making 1-of-4 threes, his 20 points led the starting unit and many came off clutch free throws as the clock wound down.
The game opened with good energy from the Raptors side. They got three offensive rebounds in the first three minutes, jumping out to a 7-0 lead. True to the form we expected, Atlanta gave up a lot of transition opportunities and weren’t doing much to stop Raptors penetration. Even though Toronto wasn’t paying off every possession with a made shot, they were getting easy looks every time, and entered the first quarter break up 36-25.
In the second and third, though, Lloyd Pierce’s team changed strategy. By putting John Collins at the hoop and collapsing their defence, the Hawks started daring the Raptors to beat them from outside — and Toronto just couldn’t oblige. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry went a combined 0-for-9 from three, while OG Anunoby missed two more, as the starters watched their lead shrivel.
At half, the Raptors had shot just 4-for-22 from distance and trailed the Hawks by three. They then watched that Atlanta lead grow to start the third, as the energy really started to swing in the favour of the home team.
The Raptors were able to turn the game back thanks to one guy: Norm. He continued a run of games that may be quietly putting his name into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, and further proved that Toronto’s depth is tough to match with when they’re fully healthy.
There is no question about that last part. Over 15 games since a monster night in Orlando on Nov. 29, Powell has averaged 20.7 points per game, shooting 48.3 percent from deep. Nurse said he has been more impressed with Powell’s driving during the stint, and while Monday’s game was not a great example of that, with Atlanta’s John Collins dissuading or outright rejecting a lot of paint shots, he has appeared more slithery and forceful of late.
Of those 15 games, Powell has come off the bench for only seven of them. He has currently started 17 of his 32 games, so he is ineligible for sixth man of the year consideration for the moment. (A player must come off the bench for more games than he started to qualify for the award. After Saturday’s game, VanVleet joked in the locker room that he didn’t want to be a sixth man because those players tend not to get big contracts in free agency. Powell, locked up for another year after this one plus a player option, could only smile at the pending free agent.) If and when Powell has started fewer than half of his games, it will still be a challenge to get his name involved in an award conversation that seems destined to centre on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell of the Clippers.
Speaking of Williams, Powell is the first Raptor since Drake’s favourite sixth man to excel in the type of role he helped make famous: an instant scorer off the bench. Some others have tried, such as Terrence Ross and C.J. Miles. The Raptors have had great reserve units, but those were built more on balance than any one player.
Right now, Powell has the brightest of green lights. On the third of his six deep balls, Powell channelled Atlanta star Young (who had 42 points himself), going to his right, and then putting the ball behind his back the other way, sending a helpless Kevin Huerter to the floor. (An accidental hand from Serge Ibaka to Huerter’s face might have helped in that pursuit.) On his fifth, after his drive was blocked, he kicked it out to Terence Davis and then sprinted for the corner. Huerter stood still for a beat, and Powell did not hesitate to take the quick shot.
The Raptors needed a boost from a Powell-led group as they watched a 21-point lead nearly evaporate in a troubling fourth quarter.
“They won us the game, for sure,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “Not even close. They tried to give it away at the end, but they definitely won us the game. Give those guys credit: They came into the game, played their butts off, played hard on the defensive end.”
After Atlanta got within two points with about 35 seconds left — mainly on the strength of a press that bamboozled the Raptors — VanVleet nailed a jumper and five free throws to seal the win.
“I think the beginning is always the key component, right?” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of handling full-court pressure. “Can you break it right off the bat, can you attack it and go down and get a layup or something and we didn’t. The first couple, we turned it over real quickly — right into layups — and then the building’s revved up …
“We didn’t do a very good job with it. We’ll have to certainly organize ourselves a little better for the next time we see that.”
The Raptors were using a backup unit for much of the fourth quarter as they tried to protect the lead. But Nurse eventually had to go back to VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry in the final 45 seconds to preserve the win.
“Lack of concentration, lack of aggression,” Lowry said. “That’s what pressing does to you. It kind of takes your aggression. I think it’s a great learning lesson for those guys that were out there. They’ll be ready and be better in that situation (in the future).”
Powell downplayed his latest game with 20 or more points.
“It feels the same. You’re just taking the same shots you’ve been taking,” Powell said. “I have confidence in my game. I have confidence in my shot. I’m taking my shots when I’m getting to my spots and living with the results. I’ve said that many times. Just live with the results, let your instincts take over and just play.”
Atlanta shot 54% in the first half, while Toronto tossed up brick after brick, resulting in 17% work from behind the three-point line.
But Toronto pressured the Hawks and rallied. Atlanta later gave Toronto a taste of its own medicine, prompting a run of turnovers with its own press.
Lowry, who only was re-inserted very late because the veteran prefers not to come back after really long rests, per head coach Nick Nurse, said the near-collapse could help the Raptors in the long run.
“Lack of concentration. Lack of aggression. That’s what pressing (does) to you,” he said.
“It kind of takes your aggression. I think it’s a great learning lesson for those guys that were out there. They’ll be ready and be better in that situation (in the future).” Toronto improved to 29-14 and is sniffing around second place in the conference with a big test looming on Wednesday at home against Philadelphia.
It was Powell’s 25-point second half on Monday that powered the Raptors to a win over Atlanta. He hit all six of his three-point attempts in the final two quarters and ignited a rally late in the third quarter that turned a nine-point deficit into a lead as big as 21 points. He was the difference.
“That’s what separates great teams from good and bad,” Fred VanVleet said. “You’ve got guys six through 10, 12 (on the roster) that can give you a spark any given time.
“This is probably one of the times we’ve seen him put it together consistently. And he’s been playing his butt off. Nobody could make a shot. He made some. It was as simple as that. He gave us the separation we needed.”
One of Powell’s most important baskets was a somewhat poignant one with about six minutes left in the game. He was being covered by Vince Carter, someone Powell idolized growing up; he sized him up, made a couple of quick moves and vaulted up to make a three-pointer for a 107-91 Raptors lead.
“I was just trying to read him,” Powell said. “Once I saw that he was switched, I thought I had a pretty good chance to take him one on one. His hands were down so I decided to take the shot. He didn’t like it too much.”
Powell’s role with the Raptors, if he maintains this consistency, will be enormous. He’s going to be able to come off the bench and play freely without worrying that a couple of missed shots will land him back on the bench. That’s going to feed his burgeoning confidence.
Powell was the difference in the Raptors’ 122-117 win, and not for the first time this season.
His play of late even begs the question — with the NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline approaching — is Powell someone the Raptors should consider untouchable?
It’s a remarkable thought given that ever since he signed his four-year, $42-million contract extension — he has another year guaranteed and a player option on it for the 2021-22 season remaining — it’s always been assumed his contract would have to be included in any significant deal. For a long time, it’s been assumed his position was one the Raptors would try to upgrade.
It would be hard to upgrade on Powell the way he’s playing, let’s just say that.
The Raptors flamethrower scored 24 points in the second half — eight in the third quarter and 17 more in the fourth. His signature play might have been when he found himself isolated on former Raptors icon Vince Carter that put the Raptors up 16 with 6:20 to play on their way to a 21-point lead with 4:30 to go. The only blemish was that after Powell finally cooled off the Hawks began pressing, the Raptors began turning it over and a 24-5 run saw the Raptors lead dwindle to two with 14 seconds left before VanVleet iced it at the free-throw line.
But the ending shouldn’t take away from the primary storyline: Powell, who at various times has been the player most difficult to get a handle on over the course of his five-year career. With stretches of inconsistency or injury-interrupted by flashes of brilliance, ‘Playoff Norm’ – shorthand for Powell’s proven ability to turn playoff series on a dime — is playing the best basketball of his life.
Others might think he’s on fire, but Powell claims that it’s just his years of work coming to fruition. He’s at his level.
7. Toronto Raptors
Week 13 ranking: 9
The Raptors are finally getting healthy, with Fred VanVleet joining Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell in returning to the lineup. The Raptors have won three straight games by an average of 16.0 points, and they play seven of their next eight games against teams well under .500. The only above-.500 team in that stretch is a home game against the 76ers, a team they have split their first two games against this season. — Snellings
4. Toronto Raptors (Previously 8th), 28-14 (+5.9 net rating)
All-Star(s) in the mix: Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. Siakam is going to be voted in as a starter. It’s entirely deserved as he’s proven his mettle as a No. 1 option on a very good team. Lowry is going to confuse some people here, but there are a couple of reasons I believe he could and should make it. First, he’s been very good. His shooting percentages are down and he’s missed a few games, but Lowry has played very good basketball and has the averages to back it up. Secondly, he’s an All-Star regular in the East. When it comes to coaches voting for reserves, that kind of stuff matters. They like to go with the veterans they know when it’s deserved. Some of that is the idea that younger or first time guys need to knock these vets off their perch. Some of it is also that coaches are often a little lazy with how they vote for this stuff. I think Lowry is in.
Why is this team here? The win over Washington isn’t that impressive, although the Wizards do put up crazy points most nights. The win over Oklahoma City was pretty incredible. Yes, they almost blew a 30-point lead, but they went into OKC and mostly dominated a good team that is playing great basketball as of late. That’s reason enough for the Raptors to start moving their way back up as they get pretty close to completely healthy.
Toronto picked up wins over the Thunder, Wizards and Timberwolves this week, but more importantly, it’s finally starting to get healthy. Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell played in all three games this week, while Fred VanVleet scored 29 points against the Wolves in his first game since Jan. 4. The Raptors have played well short-handed all season, so it’s exciting to think what they might be able to do with a full, healthy roster.
9 Toronto Raptors
Pace: 100.6 (15) OffRtg: 110.0 (12) DefRtg: 104.1 (2) NetRtg: +5.9 (6)
With Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet having made their returns from injury last week, the Raptors are healthy again. Gasol shot 13-for-18 in his first two games back, VanVleet shot 11-for-16 in his return on Saturday, and the champs have scored more than 123 points per 100 possessions over a three-game winning streak.
Their new reserves have been plucky and the 14.1 points per 100 possessions the Raptors have outscored their opponents by with Terence Davis on the floor is the fifth-best mark among 284 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 20 games or more. But they will continue to depend on their seven returning rotation guys. They’ve outscored their opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions (allowing just 101.0 per 100) in 1,618 toal minutes with five of those seven guys on the floor.
One of the Raptors’ two wins within the top six teams in the East was at home against Philadelphia, and the Sixers are back in the Six on Wednesday.
Kyle Lowry: A
Wasn’t the team’s second-oldest player supposed to be slowing down? Instead, Lowry’s turned back the clock, re-emerging as a top scoring option. He’s leading the NBA in minutes, is second in charges drawn and remains the walking heartbeat of the Raptors. When he’s on the court, good things happen for Toronto. He got rewarded with an extension and has paid back the Raptors with an inspired first half, both before and after his injury.
Could move if the Raptors decide they are buyers — contract-matching division
Norman Powell (three years, $32.6 million remaining on his contract, including player option for 2021-22)
Powell has performed well enough this season his contract is probably value-neutral this year. Some teams without free agency aspirations in 2021 might actually view it as a good deal, as Powell should just be entering his prime. The Raptors’ most natural spot to improve would be on the wing, and Powell’s salary is one of only two between $4 million and $23 million. Plus, the Raptors are mildly motivated to clear Powell’s contract to make room for the inevitable signing of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Serge Ibaka, again
In the event the Raptors decide to acquire a more expensive player, especially if that player is a big man (yes, I just described LaMarcus Aldridge), Ibaka’s contract could be extremely valuable. The Raptors would surely choose to keep Gasol over Ibaka in such a case. It’s not an especially likely scenario, but it is a plausible one.
Fred VanVleet (one year, $9.3 million remaining)
Frankly, VanVleet might belong more in the only-in-a-blockbuster category, because it is tough to see the Raptors looking to make another run without the point guard given what he means to them. All indications are the Raptors want the opportunity to retain VanVleet in free agency, and keeping his Bird Rights would be important in that quest. There is a world, though, in which the Raptors make a big enough move with a point guard-needy team that VanVleet the player — for his game, not just for his contract — becomes part of a big deal. Go ahead and have some fun on the trade machine, just don’t expect anything with VanVleet to actually happen.
For starters, the Raptors and Sixers are currently in the three- and six-seeds, respectively, which would put them on a collision course for the first round of the playoffs. For second, the season series is tied at 1-1 heading into Wednesday’s game, and while a tiebreaker situation between these two teams is unlikely (though you never know!), bragging rights carries some weight. There’s a case to be made that the Raptors are firmly lodged in the Philly’s head right now, and another win could continue to cement that feeling. Third, it feels nice to watch Toronto trend up with their whole squad healthy while also monitoring the continued struggles of the Sixers, who are 5-5 in their last ten games.
Could those stuggles be because of the absence of Joel Embiid? The Cameroonian big man had surgery on his hand on January 10th and has missed the last six contests. The Sixers, however, have gone 4-2 in those games, which stands in stark contrast to the four-game losing streak they found themselves on to begin 2020. My point here is that while Embiid is still a super important part of Philly’s team — perhaps the absolute most important part — his numbers have been down across the board. And, most significantly, the Sixers do not look like the world beaters they were touted to be at the start of the season.
Plus, it would be remiss of me to not mention something else here: Embiid or no Embiid, the Raptors matchup well against the Sixers. They have Marc Gasol back and raring to go; they’ve got Fred VanVleet on one; and they’ve grown increasingly comfortable with their bigger lineup combinations for just such matchups. Even the absence of Kawhi isn’t enough to shake Toronto’s confidence right now.
Still, this is why we watch the games. And to do that, once again we’re coming at you with the connection from StubHub for tickets. Check out this link for availability in advance of Raptors vs. Sixers this Wednesday — The Shot may not happen again (or Embiid scoring zero points), but it’s sure to be one hell of a show.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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