Comeback Falls Short as Hawks Fall To Raptors

Ben Ladner

A lot would have had to go wrong for the Raptors to give away a 21-point lead with over four minutes remaining in Monday’s game, and nearly enough did for the Hawks to steal a win at home against the defending NBA champions. Toronto’s lead dissipated as quickly as it formed, and were it not for a timely foul, it might have been squandered entirely. Instead, the Raptors escaped Atlanta with a 122-117 victory as the Hawks came, once again, painfully close to knocking off one of the NBA’s best teams.

After holding an edge for most of the third quarter Atlanta trailed by a single point entering the final frame, with a chance to enter the home stretch on level footing with Toronto. “We had them where we wanted them from a psychological standpoint, just having a cushion,” Lloyd Pierce said. “I thought our guys played well enough to win, we just couldn’t figure it out from an execution standpoint, which is frustrating.”

But NBA games can turn quickly, and the Raptors’ second unit exploded and put the game nearly out of reach before Atlanta could even register the blow. Toronto’s momentum gradually snowballed with a slow 12-3 run to close the third quarter, then grew overwhelming in the fourth. Norman Powell hit four of his six second-half 3-pointers in a span of two minutes and five seconds, while Serge Ibaka and Terence Davis mixed in triples of their own for good measure.

What stood out most about the run was how starkly it clashed with the rest of Toronto’s afternoon. The Raptors shot just 39 percent from the field and 6-of-31 from deep over the first three quarters before their 7-for-11 onslaught in the last period. The law of averages nearly always finds a way of evening teams out, but rarely does it take effect so quickly. The Hawks were slow to close out and late to contest shots, and Powell walked into enough open jumpers that even contested ones soon became foregone conclusions. He made easy work of 27 points on 6-of-9 shooting from 3, and the Raptors appeared well on their way to another easy win.

“I just wanted to come out with energy in the second half,” Powell said. “I thought we weren’t playing hard enough, so I was just trying to pick up the energy any way I could, defensively, offensively, and just trying to be aggressive.”

But Toronto soon found itself on the other side of that momentum as the Hawks mounted a comeback effort that, frankly, felt more like a hallucination. No sooner after many fans and media had left their seats did Atlanta make a run to pull within two points of the defending champs. The Hawks dialed up their energy and began pressuring full-court, which forced six turnovers in the final 4:30, and outscored the Raptors 24-3 as a result. “They put the press on us and it kind of sped us up, we really didn’t execute our press break,” Powell said. “I think it’s on me to be able to control that unit and get us into the halfcourt and run the game down and get a good shot every time down.”

DeAndre’ Bembry, who played in Kevin Huerter’s stead during the run, was instrumental in changing the tone of Atlanta’s defense, while rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter matched his activity level. Trae Young tallied 14 of his 42 points in that 4:30 span and became the first player since James Harden in 2016 to reach 40 points and 15 assists in a regulation game. John Collins converted three easy looks around the rim, and suddenly, the Hawks were a stop away from a shot to tie or win the game.

That’s precisely the moment at which their luck ran out. After playing with a contained franticness for the better part of five minutes, Collins let his energy spill just over the edge and committed his sixth foul as Fred VanVleet attempted a 3-point attempt with four seconds left on the shot clock. VanVleet converted all three tries, and Atlanta’s hopes were suddenly dashed for good with 14 seconds remaining.

It might be easy to point to Collins’ error as the cause of Atlanta’s loss, but while games can hinge on single plays, rarely do individual moments decide the final outcome. To ignore Collins’ efficient 17 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks would be to discredit the work that put the Hawks in position for his blunder to matter. The Hawks played well enough in many areas to win on Monday, and nearly overcame their mistakes anyway. Atlanta converted nearly 77 percent of its shots at the rim and over 41 percent of its 3s (excluding end-of-clock heaves) on its way to a 57.3 effective field goal percentage. The Hawks held Toronto to just 57 percent at the rim and one of its worst shooting games of the year (although the Raptors’ inability to make open jumpers certainly contributed to that inefficiency).

Hunter played the most assertive game of his career, driving the ball with force and making proactive, aggressive rotations on defense. The Hawks have been trying to get Hunter to make more plays and be more active on both ends of the floor, and the rookie delivered with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a career-high two blocks. He was, however, limited to just 27 minutes by second-half foul trouble and eventually fouled out with 1:54 to play. “I thought he was playing great,” Pierce said. “It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t keep him on the floor longer.”

The game ultimately, swung on turnovers. Atlanta had 23 giveaways on 109 possessions while Toronto had just 14; as a result the Raptors attempted nine more shots in the contest. Young alone had seven turnovers, while four other Hawks coughed it up multiple times. Empty possessions not only hindered the Hawks’ offense, but helped fuel Toronto’s. The Raptors recorded 13 steals and 33 points off of turnovers, and scored 1.78 points per possession in transition after steals, according to Cleaning the Glass’ data. Those extra opportunities added up, and even one fewer turnover might have made a meaningful difference in the final score.

“Every time we got in a crowd we turned it over. That’s the story,” Pierce said. “This team is an effort defensive team. They don’t care where they help from, they don’t care how they help. They are going to help. And so we have to punish the help by moving them and continuing to move them and putting them in rotation. We got caught a lot of times trying to attack where they’re helping instead of making the extra pass, and that’s where a lot of the turnovers came from.”

In one quarter, the Hawks showed what makes their future so promising and why they’re currently one of the worst teams in the NBA. At times, they use their youth to their advantage, competing with teams they should have no right to beat. In other moments, they lack the focus, discipline, and intensity required to put away even the dregs of the NBA. On Monday, they were both of those teams. The challenge for Atlanta is reaching a point of consistent execution, at which the kind of stirring comeback effort it made against the Raptors wouldn’t be necessary.

“I thought we did everything we could to win that game and everything we could to put ourselves in the position we did in the fourth quarter. It’s kind of just where we are,” Pierce said. “It’s a young team. I don’t know it it’s a young team thing, and old team thing. It’s just been our thing. And our thing in the fourth quarter has to get better.” 

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