NBA-best Raptors remain a work in progress

Kawhi Leonard drops a game-high 27 points with 10 rebounds as the Toronto Raptors take care of the Washington Wizards 125-107.

TORONTO — Considering the early-season play of Friday night’s opposition — the 6-12 Washington Wizards — the Toronto Raptors shouldn’t have had to work as hard as they did for their NBA-best 16th victory.

Washington’s reputation preceded them. Most Wizards possessions looked as dysfunctional as the team’s practice sessions apparently are. John Wall ran the court and defended with the urgency of a stoned fast food franchise employee. On two separate occasions in the first half, five Wizards defenders watched as Kawhi Leonard carried the ball up the floor and just kept on going straight to the rim, where he looked almost bored finishing a completely uncontested dunk.

The only reason the final score — 125-107 for you know who — even appears somewhat competitive is because the Raptors spent a good amount of the evening playing some of their most ineffective defence of the season. Meanwhile, Bradley Beal spent a good amount of his minutes playing like he was trying to convince another team to liberate him from Washington.

Uninspiring nights from Pascal Siakam, who had trouble getting anything started, and Jonas Valanciunas, who was a minus-4 over 18 minutes in a game his team won by nearly 20, didn’t help. Neither did the Raptors’ tendency to fall into extended lulls in the middle quarters, coughing up large leads and letting the Wizards back into a game they had little business being in.

“It’s a little frustrating,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We played some really dominant basketball for stretches. But it’s streaky a bit, right? We want to extend our consistent play — extend that out longer. But the times where we’re not playing that well, it can’t be so underneath average. The times that we’re not playing that well, we’ve go to stay as close to average as we can. Because you’re not going to play great for 48 minutes.”

No, you are not. But when the Raptors play the NBA’s best teams, ones that operate with a much higher level of interest than the Wizards seem to be, they can’t afford to lapse as severely as they have been. They can’t afford to cough up 15-point leads. They can’t afford to let teams open the second half on 9-0 runs.

“There was a stretch there, in the first half especially, when we sent them to the free-throw line. And then we just didn’t come out and play at the start of the second half,” Nurse said. “There was some stretches where they had a whole bunch of wide-open looks one after another. They didn’t make some of them. We got very fortunate on that.”

And due to those stretches, the Raptors had to try a great deal harder than they should have. Kyle Lowry had to go soaring into the first row of seats beneath his basket to save an air-balled three-pointer from Leonard, sending it all the way back to the top of the arc and keeping alive a possession that eventually resulted in a Serge Ibaka three.

Fred VanVleet had to hit an extremely deep catch-and-shoot three at the end of a broken possession, releasing the ball with 0.3 seconds remaining on the shot clock. OG Anunoby, who hadn’t played in a week, had to go on a personal mini-run as the game hung in the balance after halftime, scoring seven of his 15 points in a plus-9 third quarter.

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And maybe all that hard work isn’t such a bad thing. The Raptors will be a quarter of the way through their season come Sunday night, and it’s worth remembering they’re still determining an identity. Chemistry and cohesion takes time. Challenging nights can be formative.

“To last in a season, you’ve got to be even-keeled throughout the whole game. Never too down, never too high,” said Leonard, who scored 27 on 12-of-22 shooting. “We’re playing well. But I still think we can get better. The whole lineup hasn’t been in. Guys have been out.”

Leonard — who contributed his fifth double-double in 14 games as a Raptor Friday — is still regaining his sea legs after missing nearly an entire season. Nurse is still figuring out how to best deploy his hot-and-cold bench. Danny Green is just beginning to show how valuable he can be. The Raptors are playing plus-10.9 basketball with Green on the court, and minus-2.5 with him off of it.

It’s a work in progress, which is why a night like Friday can be a good thing. It can be learned from. It also started a game-every-other-day run the Raptors will be on through the middle of December, which will include dates with some very good teams: Memphis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Golden State twice. Friday should have been easy. The next few weeks shouldn’t. We’ll see how hard the Raptors have to work during it.

“I feel like it’s going to be good for us, just so we can get in a rhythm,” Leonard said of Toronto’s upcoming schedule. “I think this is a time we can gel as a team.”

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