The Toronto Raptors finally had Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry on the court together for the first time in a long while. One might have expected a breezy victory over the Atlanta Hawks, the 12th place team in the Eastern Conference.
Instead the Raptors squeaked out a 104-101 victory in a dog fight with the Hawks that went down to the final seconds Tuesday, behind 31 points and six assists from Leonard, and 16 and six from Lowry. Back-to-back dunks from Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby were the buckets to seal the victory in the dying moments.
It was the third consecutive win for the Raptors, and the sixth straight for the Raps against the Hawks. The Raptors improve to 31-12 as their nightly jockeying with the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot in the Eastern Conference continued.
The Hawks fell to 12-28.
Tuesday marked game No. 43 in the Raptors' season. Yet the team’s two biggest stars – Lowry and Leonard – were playing in just their 22nd game on the court together. The last time they’d both been in a game was Dec. 9.
Lowry was in his second contest back Tuesday after being sidelined for 10 of 11 Raptors games while managing lower back pain and a thigh contusion. He’d go on to shoot 5-of-12 on the night, and just 3-for-9 from three-point land. Lowry took just two shots in the opening quarter.
“I’m a patient kind of player. I’m just feeling the game out,” said Lowry afterward. “We’ve got great scorers in Kawhi, Serge, Pascal, guys out there who get themselves going. I can shoot whenever I want, but I like to get those guys going first.”
The starting lineup was without Danny Green, who had missed just one game so far this season back in December, and was given a rest night Tuesday. So the Raptors started two point guards, just like they had in Sunday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, with Fred VanVleet beginning the game with Lowry.
The Atlanta Hawks – winners of just 12 games this season – played neck-and-neck with the Raptors throughout the first half, and did so with players many fans couldn’t even name. One particular Hawk was very familiar to Toronto fans, though.
As with each visit to Toronto for Vince Carter over the past few years, many were speculating that Tuesday might be the final game for the nearly 42-year-old ex-Raptor in the city where he first became a superstar. When the Hawks subbed Carter into the game midway through the first quarter, he received a standing ovation. He gave them an affectionate wave as he began what would be a six-point night over 13 minutes – including two threes.
The eight-time all-star has played for eight different teams. He’s tied for the most NBA seasons (21) with Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. Like Carter, Nowitzki has yet to decide if he’ll retire this summer. Carter knows the record could be in reach.
“The only thing that would be new to accomplish at this point – obviously winning a championship – but just the longest career,” Carter told media.
Leonard led all scorers in the first half with 15 points, yet the Hawks capitalized on Toronto turnovers and held the upper hand for much of the first half – led by scoring from Jeremy Lin and little-known John Collins. Atlanta took a 57-56 lead into the locker room.
The Raptors pulled ahead in the third quarter, but never by much, and the grip was very slippery.
Toronto’s bench – an erratic bunch lately with five points in Saturday’s game and 52 in Sunday’s – contributed 22 this time. Anunoby had a decent performance with 14 points. Yet Norman Powell, fresh off a season-high 23-point performance on Sunday, had just two points on 1-for-7 shooting.
The Raps made it a nail-biter in the fourth – zipping the ball among themselves, but missing several critical three-point attempts. Anunoby was used with the starters in the final minutes in place of Pascal Siakam, and provided that final dunk, as well as some defensive hustle.
“I thought he was having a really good hands game, he was really getting his hands on some balls, knocking them away, coming up with some loose balls,” said Toronto Coach Nick Nurse of Anunoby. “Pascal picked up his fifth, I thought Pascal was coming to life a little bit at the offensive end, but OG was playing so good defensively that we let him roll tonight.”
The final two Toronto buckets that spelled a Raptors win were both exhilarating – a flurry of steals and zippy passing that went through many hands. They set up Serge Ibaka for a thrilling dunk and the final one was a lay-in from Anunoby.
Lowry also contributed four steals on the night, giving him 703 in a Raptors uniform and making him the first from the franchise to eclipse 700.
Collins led the way for Atlanta with 21, while Lin had 20.
Next up, the Raptors get a visit from the Brooklyn Nets on Friday before hitting the road for a pair of games in Washington and Boston.