Hawks vs. Raptors Game Preview

Ben Ladner

Losing two starters – including the reigning NBA Finals MVP – to free agency should be enough to keep a team out of the NBA’s upper echelon, yet the Raptors have experienced little dropoff between last season and this one. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass’ data, Toronto has a stingier defense and better point differential this year than the squad that won a championship last June. That doesn’t mean the Raptors are a better team – it’s still quite early in the season and they are objectively less talented than they were last season – but they have done a remarkable job weathering Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s absences while avoiding any championship hangover.

Toronto’s success has been largely due to the improvement of Pascal Siakam, who has given his team the star it appeared to lack entering the year. Even for those with high expectations – both for Siakam and for the Raptors – the proficiency with which he has taken on a primary role has been remarkable; he is one of the greatest player development cases in NBA history. A year after winning Most Improved Player, Siakam has reinvented himself once again – changing both the substance and efficacy of his game. His scoring average has gone from seven to 25 points per game in the last two seasons as he’s rounded into one of the more unique and complete players the Eastern Conference has to offer.

Siakam’s scoring efficiency has dipped slightly under a heavier workload, but Siakam is far more dynamic than the player who picked his spots within a more top-heavy offense a season ago. This year, he has increased his usage rate by nearly nine percentage points and improved as a playmaker and shooter – all while maintaining above-average efficiency and high-level defense.

Around him the Raptors placed a cast of smart, instinctive players who complement Siakam’s off-kilter game with ball and body movement that keeps opponents off balance and creates highly efficient shots. Nick Nurse has quickly established himself as one of the NBA’s schematic wizards; Toronto ranks in the top six leaguewide in percentage of shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and generates the fifth-highest share of corner 3s in the NBA. Their 40 percent shooting mark from 3 will likely come down, but the Raptors are accurate enough to bury an opponent from deep on any given night.

Starting point guard and NBA champion Kyle Lowry won’t play against Atlanta due to a fractured left thumb, but Fred VanVleet plays a similar sort of probing, downhill style that Lowry uses to push the offense forward. Marc Gasol is a brilliant connective passer, always there to help Toronto pivot from one idea to another. Norman Powell and OG Anunoby – shooting 52 percent from distance so far! – find where the fit and don’t veer outside their lanes. Defensively, there’s not a Raptor who isn’t capable. Siakam flies around with manic energy (though slightly less now that he’s a primary option); VanVleet sticks to opposing guards like a plastic wrapper; Anunoby takes on the wings no one else wants to; and Gasol ensures nothing goes awry. 

(The matchup between Anunoby and De'Andre Hunter -- who might say three words to one another all game -- will be fascinating. Hunter has come on strong over the last two games, but Anunoby is a better individual defender than anyone Hunter has seen.) 

As a team, the Raptors do just about everything better than the Hawks, who have slowly descended into the conversation for worst team in the NBA. Atlanta is one of the worst shooting teams in the league, while Toronto holds opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage in the league. John Collins’ absence will, once again, hurt the team as Jabari Parker attempts to impede Siakam’s drives, spins, and floaters. The lack of creators around Trae Young will allow an incredibly smart and active defense to blitz Atlanta’s point guard as often as it pleases, and Gasol is a master at swooping in to reject floaters.

If there’s a place for the Hawks to carve out an advantage, it’s on the offensive glass. Atlanta grabs the fourth-highest percentage of their own misses, per Cleaning the Glass, while Toronto ranks 27 in defensive rebounding. Perhaps Lloyd Pierce leans into that statistical edge and plays multiple big men together or starts De’Andre Bembry – a tenacious offensive rebounder – in place of Cam Reddish again. 

Short of that, there just aren’t many places in which the Raptors are vulnerable, especially coming off of two days’ rest. They are rock solid and highly compelling. Atlanta, meanwhile, has lost eight of its last nine and needs to break through at some point. Toronto may just be too solid for the Hawks to make much headway.