The Toronto Raptors picked up a much-needed win on Friday night, beating the Hawks 111-98 at the Air Canada Centre.

The Toronto Raptors bench was the difference (again)

The Raptors were trailing 17-14 with 4:16 left in the first quarter when Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright subbed in for OG Anunoby and CJ Miles; they’d taken a 2-point lead when Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl came in for Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas 2 minutes later. By the end of the quarter, they led by 8 and never trailed again That’s a 16-5 run over 4:16 for those not doing the math.

The defensive energy the bench unit brings is spectacular, especially against weaker teams like the Hawks. The Raptors had 15 blocked shots in the game—a season high—and 10 of those came from the bench. It makes a heck of a difference when the other team can’t even shoot the ball at the basket, let alone in the basket.

Pascal Siakam was everywhere

Siakam did all of the wonderful, tantalizing things he does that make you think he’s destined for great things in this game. Two plays stand out; on one, the Raptors inbounded the ball quickly off a Marco Belinelli layup, and Norman Powell found Pascal ahead of the pack. But the pass was a bit long, so Pascal actually laid it in off the jump—like an alley-oop. That type of body control, to lay that in on a running jump like that with the pas coming over your shoulder, is incredible.

On the other play, Siakam deflected a shot, tipped the ball to himself, led the break and found Powell in the corner for three (which, naturally, he missed).

These were both sensational athletic plays, the type that the Raptors have lacked from the 3-4 spots for years. With Pascal and OG Anunoby at those spots, the Raptors have made serious upgrades. (And I don’t want to jinx it but Pascal Siakam made a 3-pointer in this game!)

Norm Powell is nowhere

I don’t want to pick on Norm again; I’ve said it before, I love the guy. But he’s lost right now. He’s forcing everything. His drives are out of control. He doesn’t know when to catch-and-shoot, when to dribble and drive; he just seems to make the wrong choice more often than not.

He did have two nice alley-oop assists to Lucas Nogueira. And he did pull in a great offensive rebound and outback, and he drained a three… but overall he was 3-10 and ended up a -2 in 17 minutes.

As CJ Miles gets healthier, and if Delon Wright continues to play as well as he is, I see Norm’s minutes shrinking big-time, unless something major clicks for him.

Delon Wright has been a revelation

It was clear early in the year that Delon Wright was going to be great on defense. He’s quick, tall and and has wonderfully long arms, which meant opposing guards would have trouble initiating their offense around him. That’s all proven true; his defensive rating of 98.8 ranks him fifth in the league among players playing 20 minutes per game or more.

But I’m really impressed with how his offense has come around. He started the season 2-19 from 3-pt range if you’ll recall, and was shooting just 35% through the first six games. But then things started to come around; he went 6-9 from deep over the next 7 games, before getting hurt against the Pelicans. He then proceeded to go 7-19 overall in his first three games back from injury, but has since settled in wonderfully. Over the last five games he’s shooting 49% from the field, 50% from three and has a true shooting percentage of 57.5%, which is excellent for a bench guard.

It’s been very easy to praise the Raptors’ young players this year; it’s also been easy to point out that it’s a small sample size and it’s a long season. But it’s been 34 games. That sample size is getting bigger, and the bench continues to excel.

I love that Dwane Casey stood up for OG Anunoby at the end of the game

OG threw down a nasty dunk with 17 seconds left; you can argue that, with the Raptors up by 11, he should’ve just let the clock run out. And that’s exactly what Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer thought, and he wasn’t afraid to tell OG about it on the next play.

As time expired, Dwane Casey told Budenholzer exactly what he thought of that:

Now, coaches getting into screaming matches is usually pretty eye-rolling, especially over something as goofy as this. But as a Raptors player, it’s gotta make you feel pretty damn good when your coach sticks up for you like that! I bet OG would’ve run through a minefield for Casey after that.

(That’s about as emotional as OG gets, BTW.)

When the Raptors talk about culture and attitude, that kinda stuff matters. Just like Masai saying “Fuck Brooklyn” matters. When the leaders of your organization are so personally invested, it brings people together and makes everybody work that much harder for each other. And that’s a great thing to see.

So that’s it for the Raptors in 2017! 24-10 is a damn fine start, and an 11-3 December is excellent. But as noted the other day, the schedule turns tough in January, starting New Year’s Day when the Bucks come to town. Can the Raptors continue their strong play?