Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 118-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
One -- The Raptors have clinched a playoff spot for the eighth time in nine seasons. The red-hot Hawks were standing in their way, winners of five straight while averaging nearly 130 points per game during that stretch, but the Raptors emerged victorious with a convincing performance where they dominated the paint and kept Trae Young under control.
Elsewhere in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers capitulated against the tanking Orlando Magic, which eliminates the chance of them taking back their spot in the top six from Toronto, and as a bonus, the Chicago Bulls were blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks, which moves the Raptors into fifth.
Two -- Pascal Siakam dominated this game on every level. Siakam scored 31 points while carving the Hawks' defence apart. Atlanta opened the game in single coverage and without an actual lockdown wing to check Siakam, so he went straight to work. Siakam had all his tricks going between the spin move, the floater, the turnaround jumper, and his handle allowed him to get to every spot he wanted to on the floor patiently before rising up for the shot.
He was in such a rhythm that at one point, Siakam skied to intercept a pass that was intended for his own teammate, settled into his attack in the middle of the floor, before scoring in the paint for two of his 13 points in the third quarter, which put the Raptors ahead.
Three -- Siakam also delivered the pass that clinched the win. Atlanta eventually conceded and switched to sending double or triple teams at Siakam, which finally put an end to his scoring, but he still beat them with the pass. Siakam had a pair of kick-out passes to open shooters that didn't fall, but he didn't change his approach, and on a play where he drove hard into the paint, hung in the air as three defenders sandwiched him, Siakam was able to find Fred VanVleet on the perimeter for a three that put the Raptors up five points with a minute left.
Siakam took 23 shots, attempted eight foul shots, and collected six assists in 40 minutes without a single turnover. His game is so much more mature than where it was in his last All-NBA season.
Four -- No matter how much he's struggling, VanVleet is always good for at least one clutch shot. VanVleet had a miserable game on the offensive end, shooting just 4-for-21 from the field including a miserable 1-for-11 from deep before his clutch triple to seal it, and while he was overeager on a few attempts, the bulk of his looks were open. VanVleet's cold night was the main reason why this game was close, as he missed a pair of wide-open threes where he even had the space to take the extra dribble before launching the shot, and yet he still couldn't get it to drop.
Still, his defence on Young was free of mistakes, and in addition to the late triple, he also went on a mini-run to start the fourth where he drove and kicked to Chris Boucher for a pair of triples, found Scottie Barnes in the post, and finished a tricky layup where he switched hands mid-air to avoid the block.
Five -- VanVleet can take time to heal his bad knee. VanVleet said after the game that he pushed through the injury during a key stretch in the schedule as the Raptors made their playoff push, and now that the job is done, the team can give him more than full week to rest before the start of the first round. Nick Nurse said of VanVleet after the win: “We’re gonna get him off his feet here for a couple of days.”
Six -- Containing Young was the main focus of the Raptors game plan. The Raptors had to be very careful with him, knowing that he was always a threat to shoot, and that he is a slippery player who can use his quickness and elite handle to get to all the spots to bend the defence, but the Raptors were mostly up to the task. VanVleet was always there to consistently pressure Young on the ball and to dictate which way he could drive, then the Raptors' bigs were timely with the help to challenge Young at the basket while also being mindful of the lob pass.
It's a true testament to Young's talent that a good defensive performance against him looks like 26 points and 15 assists, but considering that the bulk of Atlanta's offence runs through him, it was a good showing by the Raptors. He needed 23 shots to get his 26 points, and Young only got to the foul line four times, two of which came on a generous call on Malachi Flynn, who only stood his ground as Young ripped through with the ball to create the contact.
Seven -- The Raptors won the possession battle yet again. Toronto doubled Atlanta in offensive rebounds 20 to 10 and was plus-20 in paint points as a result. Khem Birch was solid to start, but the Raptors' energy really picked up when Boucher, Thad Young, and Precious Achiuwa checked in off the bench. The lineup of those three forwards with Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. allowed the Raptors to climb back into the lead against the Hawks' bench, and it was largely through dominating the glass. Later on, it was Barnes who continued the charge with six of his own and those extra chances were key on a night where the team shot 9-for-35 from deep.
Eight -- Boucher stepped up with 18 points off the bench. The Raptors lack a traditional bench scorer, but they do have three energetic bigs in Boucher, Achiuwa, and Young who can all deliver a scoring punch for the second unit. Boucher had it going today, knocking in three triples, two putbacks, and two transition dunks, but any of the three are also capable. The trick is to have at least one of them going, otherwise, it does put a strain on the starters to carry the offence, but overall the Raptors bench has been much steadier since the trade deadline acquisition of Young, who has been a calming and unselfish presence.
Nine -- Barnes stepped up when he needed to. He was quiet to start with Siakam dominating, but scored 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter. He started off with a post-up, sealing a guard on his back before finishing through contact. Then he knocked in a corner three from VanVleet on a wild pass to the corner to put the Raptors back up 10 after the Hawks had just nailed a triple to secure momentum, then he muscled Bogdan Bogdanovic out of the way to secure an airball from Achiuwa in the corner for a putback to put Toronto up two, then capped the game with a finger roll over Clint Capela to beat a full-court press, and cashed two free throws at the end. He finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds in his ongoing pursuit of the Rookie of the Year award.
Ten -- Raptors fans are truly blessed. Since Masai Ujiri took over in 2013, the Raptors have suffered only one losing season, which came during a global pandemic that forced the team to relocate, as the lone exception between eight playoff runs. During that blip, Ujiri was able to rebuild a former champion into a new group with a new identity, using two core pieces of the title along with a fresh crew of young and athletic prospects who have all shown major growth when given the chance. Trent Jr. was acquired at last year's deadline, Barnes was considered the bold choice in the draft, and Achiuwa was the score in Kyle Lowry's graceful exit.
Meanwhile, VanVleet made his first All-Star appearance, Siakam is en route to a second All-NBA nod, and Nurse is as sharp as it gets as a tactician. Ujiri himself said on opening night that this would be a developmental year, and what that looks like is a career year for many franchises, with the Raptors sitting comfortably with 46 wins and with a core that is completely under team control through at least next year. Enjoy this moment, not because it is new, but because Ujiri and his staff have made it routine.