Raptors beat Hawks for fifth straight win

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For all the talk there has been this year about the heavy minutes being played by the Toronto Raptors’ starting five, their legs appear to be doing just fine.

Fatigue presents itself in various forms throughout the season, but never is it more apparent than in the second of back-to-back games. While a team that frequently operates with a seven- or eight-man rotation should struggle under those conditions, the Raptors have found a way to thrive.

The Raptors improved to 7-3 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season with a 125-114 win over the surging Atlanta Hawks on Friday at Scotiabank Arena. The victory extended their winning streak to five games, one off a season high, and came against a red-hot team that has lost just twice over its last 10, with both defeats coming at the hands of the Raptors.

Pascal Siakam set the tone early with 21 points, on 7-of-9 shooting, in the first quarter. He finished with 33 while hauling in nine rebounds and dishing out four assists. Fred VanVleet had 26 points and 11 assists one day after officially being named an all-star, while Gary Trent Jr. chipped in with 19 points.

With the NBA trade deadline less than a week away, the Raptors appear to be sending a message to the rest of the league that they mean business. They are peaking again at the right time with seven wins over their last nine, including a 3-0 homestand that was capped Friday night.

The quality of those recent wins has been particularly impressive. They picked up one against the first-place Chicago Bulls and two against the second-place Miami Heat. There were also the two victories over Atlanta and one over the Charlotte Hornets, two teams that are battling for positioning in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff standings.

The recent stretch should eliminate any lingering doubts about president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster’s intentions for the Feb. 10 trade deadline. There was never any reason to believe this team would start selling off spare parts, but there might have been some question marks about their willingness to buy.

That shouldn’t be the case now in a wide-open Eastern Conference where the perceived favourites, the Brooklyn Nets, entered play Friday having lost six consecutive games and where the defending champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, sat a quiet fourth. The Raptors might not be title contenders, but with the right move or two they could at least become a team none of the top seeds want to face in the opening round.

The recent performance of Siakam, who arguably is playing the best basketball of his career, drives that point home even further. He entered play Friday as one of just five players in the NBA this season to average at least 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists. The others are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, James Harden and Nikola Jokic.

The Raptors’ victory at home over the Hawks was even more impressive than their win on the road earlier in the week. In the first matchup, the Hawks were without the services of all-star starter Trae Young. With Young out of the lineup, the Hawks saw their winning streak snapped at seven games. When he returned Thursday night, they defeated Phoenix Suns, the first-place team in the West and winners of 11 in a row.

Young made his presence felt early against the Raptors. He either scored or picked up an assist in all of Atlanta’s first 16 points. That helped the Hawks jump out to an early eight-point lead, but it was quickly erased thanks in large part to Siakam’s early dominance. The Raptors went ahead 17-16 midway through the first on a fadeaway jumper from Siakam and never trailed again.

The 23-year-old Young played well, finishing with 13 assists, but his 22 points were seven below his season average. Elsewhere, the Raptors limited Atlanta to 31 per cent shooting from downtown (9-for-29) and they held their own on the boards against a big team that does a lot of its damage from the inside.

The Raptors’ schedule won’t ease up for a few more days. There’s another key matchup Monday against the Hornets, who like the Raptors entered play on Friday 4 1/2 games back of Chicago. Then it’s off to Oklahoma City and Houston against a pair of basement-dwelling teams, the second of which will be on the same day as the trade deadline.

At last year’s deadline, Raptors fans were worried about who they would be losing from their team. This year they can focus on who they might be adding. This is already a scrappy, energetic team; with a bit more help off the bench they might even be able to make some noise in a conference that is still there for the taking.

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