The Raptors kept to form against the visiting Atlanta Hawks as their 106-90 win improved them to an astounding 26-2 against teams that are below .500, and 4-0 against the Hawks alone.
All the doormat stomping adds up. The Raptors are 46-17 and 27-5 at home. They lead the East by two games over the Boston Celtics.
It makes perfect sense – the Raptors are good and the Hawks (20-45) are almost intentionally bad as they try to rebuild just three years removed from winning the East with a 60-22 record – proof that things don’t stand still in the NBA for long.
The key is not to take any moment for granted and the Raptors have done a good job of that.
“We’re trying to be one of those teams that takes care of business whenever possible and that will set you up for better standings in the long run,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, who was on the floor in the fourth quarter as the Raptors blew open a close game with a late run that was a little too long in coming. “Anytime we’re favoured or whatever we’re trying to not take anything for granted or overlook anyone.”
In the early going they overlooked Atlanta though, risky business as the Hawks do have some talent even though they are at the front of the NBA’s tank brigade. Atlanta led Toronto by one point at the end of the first quarter, the half and at the end of 36 minutes.
The Raptors didn’t look hungry, they looked entitled, never more than when both Kyle Lowryand DeMar DeRozan took technical fouls as they directed that frustration at the officials late in the first half.
“We can’t get in the mindset of ‘OK tonight they are going to let us come out and do our thing,’” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “No. There is nobody in this league who is going to come out and allow you play your game the way you want, especially when you are on the top of the heap.
“We have to adapt to that playing personality.”
The Raptors started the third quarter trailing 77-76 and shooting just 8-of-31 from three with all those misses contributing to 17 fast-break points by Atlanta.
It was Delon Wright – overshadowed lately as the rest of the second-unit has gotten its just due – who helped turn the game in a number of subtle ways. He set a perfect screen to set up a momentum-building three-point play by C.J. Miles and a perfect drop pass to Jakob Poeltlfor a layup as Wright finished with 10 points and three steals in 18 minutes before leaving the game with a strained big toe. A massive block by Poeltl on a Mike Muscala dunk attempt that culminated in another Miles three was the highlight for the 23-4 run that turned a tight game into a rout. It was one of three blocks on the night from the second-year Austrian centre and he’s now averaging 2.6 blocked shots per 36 minutes.
“It’s the experience and figuring out the timing,” he said. “When to be where … sometimes I was there too early almost in the past and now I’ve figured out how to get there.”
The defence was important as Toronto shot just 38.6 per cent from the floor and 10-of-36 from three but held Atlanta to 13 fourth-quarter points on 6-of-19 shooting. Toronto was led by DeRozan who had 25 while Miles had 14 off the bench. Malcolm Miller got the start again at small forward in place of OG Anunoby (ankle) and showed some glimpses of promise in his 13 minutes (five points, two rebounds) but nothing that jumped off the page.
The win kept them on target. The Raptors have been more public about their goals this year than they have been in years past where they seemed to avoid mentioning them in case they were held accountable for them. A sign of their growing confidence is their willingness to say they wanted to chase the first-overall seed in the East and now, to take aim at the 60-win mark.
CONTINUED FULL STORY HERE: SPORTSNET