It took the Toronto Raptors (12-7) nearly 28 full minutes of game time before they reached the 39-point plateau on Wednesday night in Atlanta. At that point, 3:45 into the third quarter, a Luis Scola hook shot helped cut into the host Hawks’ 17-point lead, the biggest that either team held all night. From there, however, the Raptors were able to match those 39 points in the fourth quarter alone, turning that 17-point deficit and nine-point disadvantage heading into the final quarter into an eventual 96-86 win.
After shooting 36.7% (22-60) through the first three quarters as Atlanta held them to just 57 points, the Raps erupted in the fourth thanks to Kyle Lowry and some eye-opening contributions from Lucas Nogueira. On the same night as Steph Curry dropped 28 points in a single quarter on his hometown Charlotte Hornets, Lowry did his best Steph impression, scoring 22 of his game-best 31 points over the final 12 minutes for what was a new Raptors franchise record for fourth quarter points. Perhaps more surprising, though, was the production of Nogueira, who pulled down five of his seven boards and all four of his points in the fourth while finishing with a stunning +22 in just over 16 minutes of floor time.
While Lowry provided much of the offense (his 31 points were nearly a third of the club’s overall production), the rest of the team chipped in with a strong defensive effort. The Hawks were held to a season-low 86 points thanks to their 36.7% (33-90) shooting, becoming the seventh Raps’ opponent to be held below 40% from the floor (Toronto is 7-0 in those games). They managed to reign in every Hawks scorer, with Paul Millsap leading the hosts with just 14 points. On the whole, the Raps are allowing just 95.8 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA, one year after allowing opponents to score 100.9 points per contest, just the 18th-best mark league-wide. The win in Atlanta marked the end of a road-heavy stretch in which the club has played a league-low six home games, but they will now double that with their upcoming six-game homestand.
A Bebe boost
I’ll admit that it feels a little strange to single out the lowest-scoring member of the Raptors’ nine-man rotation from Wednesday, particularly when his teammate poured in 27 more points, but the surprising Bebe factor shouldn’t be overlooked in what was a big win. Far from a garbage time curiosity, Nogueira was an absolute crunch time impact player for Toronto on Wednesday. His interior presence forced the Hawks to alter their plan of attack and his rebounding edge over the undersized hosts led to nine Raptor points before looking a little gassed late in the game. The Raps certainly don’t win the game if Lowry doesn’t outscore Atlanta 22-20 in the fourth, but Nogueira offered contributions that the team wasn’t expecting. Things are simply more enjoyable when the standout Brazilian big man is able to make his mark, and Wednesday night could be a sign of what’s to come.
With shots not falling and the three ball particularly giving the Raptors problems, they merit some credit for shifting their focus inside. The Raps got things going in the second half with a diligent focus on penetrating and working the ball inside, finishing with a 52-40 edge in points in the paint and a 50-43 edge on the glass, getting rebounds from all nine Raptors to see the floor and multiple boards from all but Cory Joseph. The newfound aggressiveness helped Toronto to more free points, jumping from four free throw attempts in the first half to 20 in the second.
Three point woes
If the final stat line of just 24% (6-25) from three-point range looks bad for the Raps, consider that they needed to make four of their final seven tries from deep just to reach such lofty status. Last year’s bombing Atlanta Hawks they ain’t, as DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, Terrence Ross and Joseph combined to shoot 1-11 from beyond the three-point arc. In a league where the three ball has become an increasingly essential asset, the Raptors sit in the league’s bottom half with less than eight made threes per game as a team. On this night, the Raps were saved by Atlanta’s equally shaky performance (29.6%, 8-27), but there’s no doubt that they’d be better off being able to use the three-ball as a weapon, a la the Warriors and Cavs rather than modestly eschewing the trey like the Brooklyn Nets.
In his first game back in Atlanta since signing with Toronto as a free agent this past summer, Carroll shared a pre-game hug with Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. It was with coach Bud that Carroll enjoyed a breakthrough campaign that helped him land that lucrative $60 million contract with the Raps.
Because I love rehashing past Raptor trade coups…. Nogueira’s big night was particularly sweet against Atlanta, who added the former first rounder to juice a trade that sent Lou Williams north in exchange for cap fodder in the form of John Salmons, who was waived two weeks later. Yes, we got our Sixth Man of the Year from last season AND a still-promising 23-year-old project for John Salmons.
Having gone 4-6 in their last 10 after an impressive 8-3 start, it’s beginning to look like the Hawks are missing Carroll more than it initially seemed. Without their starting small forward from last season, Atlanta has dropped from second in the league in three-point percentage down to a mediocre 14th, shooting 35.1% after making 38% of their threes last year. They’ve also allowed a middling 100 points per game, up from a stingy 97.1 figure last season that was good for fifth in the league. If only they had a 3-and-D specialist to give them a boost.
The Raps didn’t help out their own 2016 draft pick fortunes earlier this year by losing at home to the New York Knicks. Now, though, they get another shot at it when they host the no-name Denver Nuggets tonight (7:30pm, SN1). Denver has now dropped eight straight games after a surprise start under new head coach Michael Malone.
Prediction: Raps 98, Nuggets 87 (record this season: 7-11)