10 things: Norman Powell goes supernova, but Raptors still nearly suffer collapse

William Lou
NBA reporter

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 122-117 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

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.

Two — Explosive: Powell had scored just two points when he checked in midway through the third quarter. Powell was saddled with early foul trouble after two touch calls went Trae Young’s way, and the Hawks had all the momentum after weathering the Raptors’ best punch. Powell then proceeded to take over, as he exploded for 25 points over a 12-minute stretch, with each successive shot being more ridiculous than the last. At first, it was the routine — a pair of catch-and-shoot threes and a hard drive to the rim got the Raptors into the lead — but then it bordered on ridiculous. Powell got so hot that he went behind his back off a screen for a pull-up three, then followed it by draining the clock, staring down Vince Carter, before nailing another dagger to stretch the lead to 16.

Three — Gamble: Nick Nurse made a bold call to scrap his rotations and to ride it out with the bench. After all, it was the second unit that got the Raptors into the lead, and for the most part, the athleticism of the second unit allowed the Raptors to temporarily keep Trae Young in check by switching. It was a gamble that largely paid off, as none of the starters played more than 30 minutes, and the Raptors got the win. That being said, Nurse did overplay his hand by the end.

Four — Burned: Down 21, the Hawks made a last-ditch effort with an aggressive full-court press. This accomplished two things. One, the Raptors committed shaky turnovers that led directly to easy baskets for the Hawks. Two, it sped up the pace of the game and created more possessions for the Hawks to close the gap. And even when the Raptors did get the ball past half court, there wasn’t much time left on the clock to organize their defense and to run their sets. All in all, the Hawks gave the Raptors a taste of their own medicine, and it nearly worked.

Five — Flawed: Part of the reason why the press was so effective is that the bench doesn’t have a reliable ball-handler. Pat McCaw is supposed to be that piece, but it’s beyond clear that his handle isn’t tight enough for that responsibility. Similar to the blown lead against Oklahoma City Thunder, McCaw had his pocket picked trying to advance the ball leading to a layup, and that led to a reversal in momentum. With everyone healthy, the Raptors should have at least one of Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet on the floor at all times to run the show, but Nurse made the call to run with his bench.

Six — Fit: Powell’s hot shooting papered over what was otherwise a bad night for the reserves. One issue that crops up is the pairing of McCaw and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Both players are liabilities on offense in a halfcourt setting, and their collective lack of shooting shrinks the floor for everyone else to operate. Powell is running so hot that it’s rendering this moot, but the effect on Ibaka is clear over the last two games. Ideally, only one non-shooter should be on the floor at one time, but that would require one of McCaw or Hollis-Jefferson to be dropped from the rotation.

Seven — Temporary: Much of this issue, however, will solve itself in time. Siakam, VanVleet, Powell and Gasol are all working their way back from injuries, and so Nurse has to operate with minute restrictions that necessitate extended minutes for the bench. When everyone is available, there won’t be such a sharp drop-off in production when it comes to the second unit.

Eight — Steady: VanVleet stepped up for the Raptors when they needed him most. VanVleet nailed a pull-up jumper, drew a foul on a wild closeout, and knocked down four clutch free throws to give the Raptors the win. Even when everyone else was shaken by the comeback, VanVleet kept his composure, and that’s one of his best qualities.

Nine — Assertive: As he works his way back from injury, it’s imperative for the Raptors to continue emphasizing Siakam in the post. He’s not initiating as many plays as much as he did earlier in the year, but he was flatly under-utilized tonight. Siakam is a walking mismatch, and the Hawks could not defend the rim. The Raptors finally figured that out in the third quarter, after they ran the same play on consecutive possessions with Siakam getting a backscreen from Lowry to get deep position in the post.

Ten — Test: Wednesday’s contest against the Sixers will be an important barometer for the Raptors at full strength. Philadelphia is without Joel Embiid, and so the Raptors should make a concerted effort to attack the basket through Siakam. Toronto is 1-1 on the season against the Sixers, and winning the tie-breaker could be useful when it comes to determining the standings by season’s end.

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