The Atlanta Hawks are not a good team right now. They just managed to surrender 150 points to the LA Clippers in regulation and lose by 25 to the Detroit Pistons in the same week. They’d lost eight of nine games after a 3-3 start, and had an hour-long team meeting to address the lack of success and hopefully find a way to bounce back.
On Monday, the Toronto Raptors will play host to the Philadelphia 76ers — a matchup that recalls the memory of that fateful Kawhi Leonard bouncing shot that won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal and sent Toronto on its way to a first NBA title.
In other words, Saturday night’s contest had trap game written all over it for the Raptors.
For the majority of the first half, the Raptors fell victim to it. A team that has prided itself on effort and intensity struggled to find a rhythm against a team riding the high of a placebo clearing of the air. The Hawks went on a 10-0 run early in the first quarter, and after Toronto worked its way to a one-point deficit to end the frame, Atlanta held steady with a six-point lead midway through the second quarter.
That’s when both Fred VanVleet and Trae Young showcased the essence of who they are as players to great effect and it led to a memorable finish.
With just over three minutes remaining in the second, Young dribbled one way, then the other, ball faked, found his way into the lane, and dropped a beautiful floater that left the crowd ooing and aahing. Fred VanVleet wasn’t having any of it, pushing the ball right back down Atlanta’s throat and finishing with a floater himself.
On the very next play, Young looked to up the ante with the duel proving too enticing to ignore for a rising star who screams entertainer. He jacked up a three after a little dance and missed. VanVleet, hardly a man for the flash and flair, simply took the ball and made his way down the floor for a layup.
Riding the wave of a Hawks counterpunch, Young dribbled down the clock for the final possession and hovered around the logo, where he showed why the Steph Curry comparisons exist. Shaking and baking, he pulled up for a step-back from 36 feet out to nail another 3-point bomb that extended Atlanta’s lead to nine heading into halftime.
Like an enthralling TV series, the episode left fans filled with excitement in anticipation of what was to come. And the two didn’t disappoint.
Back and forth they went in the third quarter, Young bringing the razzle-dazzle while VanVleet battled to make winning plays on both ends at every opportunity. When Young hit a tough fadeaway from the right extended elbow after crossing left and right against VanVleet to push Atlanta’s lead back up to eight, VanVleet returned the favour with back-to-back assists to Norman Powell for 3-pointers to cut the lead to two.
When it came down to a two-possession game in the final quarter, VanVleet found Powell again on a lob before maneuvering out on the break and finishing with a layup himself to push the Toronto lead to eight with under three minutes remaining. After the Hawks still found a way to battle back, the game came down to Atlanta needing a three with under five seconds remaining. Looking for a sliver of room around the logo again, Young shot for the hero three and missed wide right.
None of this commentary is to say that the Atlanta point guard doesn’t make difference-making plays. He found his teammates, crashed the glass, and was the primary reason his club had a chance.
While Young attempts haymaker after haymaker and lands them on occasion, VanVleet’s killer punch to opponents is his 1,000 cuts. His 25 points and nine assists in 43 minutes tallied a plus-10, while Young’s 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in 41 minutes earned him a minus-4.
The difference on this night may have simply been teammate support. While VanVleet’s co-star Pascal Siakam dropped 34 points on 18 shots, Young’s partner in crime, John Collins, is still sitting out with a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.
Toronto will now look to protect its perfect home record on Monday in a eagerly awaited showdown with the Sixers. No team meeting will be necessary for Philadelphia as the players’ emotional energy will be at a serious high from revisiting the scene of their 2019 post-season exit.
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports