Opinion | Raptors show no signs of slowing down, beating the Hawks for their fifth straight win

For all the talk there has been this year about the heavy minutes being played by the Toronto Raptors’ starting five, their legs appear to be doing just fine.

Fatigue presents itself in various forms throughout the season, but it is never more apparent than in the second of back-to-back games. While a team that frequently operates with a seven- or eight-man rotation should struggle under those conditions, the Raptors have found a way to thrive.

The Raptors improved to 7-3 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season with a 125-114 win over the surging Atlanta Hawks on Friday at Scotiabank Arena. The victory extended their winning streak to five games, one off a season high, and came against a red-hot team that has lost just twice over its last 10, with both defeats coming at the hands of the Raptors.

Pascal Siakam set the tone early with 21 points, on 7-of-9 shooting, in the first quarter. I have finished with 33 while hauling in nine rebounds and dishing out four assists. Fred VanVleet had 26 points and 11 assists one day after officially being named an all-star, while Gary Trent Jr. chipped in with 19 points.

“I think we should feel pretty good,” said Siakam, whose team picked up four wins in five days. “Definitely some tough games against really good teams in the East. Those are the teams we want to face. The games came at us pretty fast, so I like the way we responded… I like that resilience and just the fact that we go out there every single night and we fight.”

With the NBA trade deadline less than a week away, and the Raptors appear to be sending a message to the rest of the league that they mean business. They are peaking again at the right time with a 7-2 record over their last nine, including a 3-0 homestand that was capped Friday night.

The quality of those recent wins has been particularly noteworthy. They picked up one against the first-place Chicago Bulls and two against the second-place Miami Heat. There were also the two victories over Atlanta and one over the Charlotte Hornets, two teams that are battling for positioning in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

The positive stretch should eliminate any lingering doubts about president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster’s intentions for the Feb. 10 trade deadline. There was never any reason to believe this team would be sold off for spare parts, but there might have been some question marks about their willingness to buy.

That shouldn’t be the case now in a wide-open Eastern Conference where the perceived favourites, the Brooklyn Nets, entered play Friday having lost six consecutive games and where the defending champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, sat a quiet fourth. The Raptors might not be title contenders, but with the right move or two they could at least become a team none of the top seeds want to face in the opening round.

The recent performance of Siakam, who is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, makes them particularly dangerous. He’s one of just five players averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists this season. The others are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, James Harden and Nikola Jokic.

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam had 21 of his 33 points against Atlanta in Friday's first quarter.

“He was rolling,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “You know he’s probably going to get some transition drives, some post-ups, and I’ve kind of always said that when he has the three-ball going, he makes like three or more and usually ends up pushing his number up to around 30 … He hit those early two, so he was really playing a high level to start us off.

“That’s good on a back-to-back. It’s good to have somebody come out with that extra special juice to get you going.”

The Raptors’ victory at home over the Hawks was even more impressive than their win on the road just a few days prior. In the first matchup, the Hawks were without the services of all-star starter Trae Young as their win streak was snapped at seven games. When he returned Thursday night, they defeated the Phoenix Suns, the first-place team in the West and winners of 11 in a row.

Young made his presence felt early against the Raptors. He either scored or picked up an assist in all of Atlanta’s first 16 points. That helped the Hawks jump out to an early eight-point lead, but it was quickly erased thanks in large part to Siakam’s early dominance. The Raptors went ahead 17-16 midway through the first on a fadeaway jumper from Siakam and never trailed again.

The 23-year-old Young played well, finishing with 13 assists, but his 22 points were seven below his season average. Elsewhere, the Raptors limited Atlanta to 31 per cent shooting from downtown (9-for-29) and they outrebounded a bigger team that does a lot of its damage from the inside.

The Raptors’ schedule won’t ease up for a few more days. There’s another key matchup Monday against the Hornets, who like the Raptors entered play on Friday 4 1/2 games back of Chicago. Then it’s off to Oklahoma City and Houston against a pair of basement-dwelling teams, the second of which will be on the same day as the trade deadline.

“Take it one day at a time, try to recover as much as I can,” Siakam said of the difficult schedule. “That’s another step for me. Before, when I was 22, I didn’t really care, I could play 100 minutes. I could come back the next day and do the same thing. Now I’m kind of hurting. You have to ice and do all the little things to make sure you’re fresh for the next game, or as fresh as you can be.”

At last year’s deadline, Raptors fans were worried about who they would be losing from their team. This year they can focus on who they might be adding. This is already a scrappy, energetic team; with a bit more help off the bench they might even be able to make some noise in a conference that is still there for the taking.


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