Fred VanVleet, Raptors Clinch 2022 NBA Playoff Spot with Win over Hawks

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVApril 6, 2022

TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 30: Fred VanVleet #23 hi-fives Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 30, 2022 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors punched their ticket to the 2022 NBA playoffs with a 118-108 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday.

The result, along with the Cleveland Cavaliers' loss to the Orlando Magic, assured them of a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference, thus bypassing the play-in tournament.

A streak of seven straight postseason appearances came to an end in 2020-21 as Toronto endured a campaign that adhered to Murphy's Law. That might have been a blessing in disguise, though.

By slipping into the draft lottery, the Raptors had the opportunity to land Scottie Barnes, who has built a Rookie of the Year-caliber resume.

With Kyle Lowry headed for free agency, some were surprised Toronto passed on Jalen Suggs, but the team correctly identified how Barnes would provide an immediate impact on the court. Through 70 games, the 6'9" forward was averaging 15.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals.

With Lowry on his way out, the front office could have torn the roster down to the studs and centered everything around Barnes. Instead, the trio of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have stuck around, and all three have played key roles in helping the Raptors remain a playoff contender.

VanVleet, who earned his first All-Star nod, is averaging career highs in points (20.4) and assists (6.6). Siakam has bounced back from a forgettable season to put up 22.4 points and 8.4 boards per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range. Anunoby, who has been limited to 47 games, is seeing his scoring average (17.3 points) climb for the fourth straight year.

Siakam's progression is particularly pivotal since his four-year, $136.9 million extension was indicative of his importance to the franchise coming off the 2019 championship run.

In an interview with Vivek Jacob for the Raptors' official website, the 28-year-old said he thought he's "continuing to get better."

"It’s been a good, long road for me, and again, I just always believed all the work I have put in is going to pay off," he said. "No matter tough times or great times, I just want to stay focused on the grind and continue to get better as a player. I think there is a lot more to my game that can be unlocked and I just want to continue to do that."

Coming into the year, few expected the Raptors to challenge for a title, and that largely remains the case.

But Toronto has exceeded expectations and provided fans with hope for what more is to come.