TORONTO — It was two weeks ago to the day that the Washington Wizards handed the Toronto Raptors their most demoralizing loss of the season, a thorough beat down at Air Canada Centre following a long, mildly successful road trip.
On Sunday, the Raptors avenged that loss and then some, outgunning the Wizards, 100-91, to win for the sixth time in their seven games since that defeat. Toronto has looked like a different team over that stretch, finally finding a rhythm to its offence and getting significant contributions from players up and down the roster as head coach Dwane Casey runs out a rotation that stretches 12 deep some nights.
There were a lot of reasons the Raptors took this one back from the Wizards Sunday, but here are three key plays that helped make the difference.
Siakam’s chase down block
Pascal Siakam made about a dozen plays in this game that would qualify as difference-making, but his chase-down block of Mike Scott early in the fourth quarter summed up his night about as well as any of them.
Coming off a Fred VanVleet turnover in Washington’s end, Siakam sprinted the length of the floor, jumped out of his shoes, and blocked Scott from behind, keeping a sure two points off the board with the Raptors up one at the time.
“I’m just trying to be active,” Siakam said. “I know I have long arms and stuff like that — I just have to be active and move my feet and try to poke out a ball and do whatever I’ve got to do to bother [shooters].”
Siakam was absurdly energetic in this game, finishing with only four points in his 31 minutes but making a glut of athletic defensive plays. He was a team-high plus-18, grabbing nine rebounds in the process, and consistently beat the play down the floor with sheer hustle, opening up opportunities for himself and his teammates.
“It’s very rare for a guy with that athleticism to use it 100 per cent of the time. That’s why he’s special,” VanVleet said. “There are a lot of athletes like him in the NBA, but there are very few that fly around on each possession. His conditioning is great. He doesn’t seem to ever get tired. He’s literally just out-running people, out-working, flying around. He’s got great hands, great instincts. Those are the types of guys you want on the team. Guys that will leave it all out there all the time.”
Siakam’s now played over 30 minutes in consecutive games, as he’s progressively carved out a bigger role for himself in Casey’s crowded rotation. That’s helped the Raptors lighten OG Anunoby’s workload (the rookie had ACL surgery only 10 months ago), and get by without the services of Norman Powell, who’s missed the last four, and Serge Ibaka, who sat out Toronto’s win over the New York Knicks Friday with a nagging knee injury.
And Siakam’s teammates say his pace and energy on the floor is helping bring out the best in them, too.
“The energy he brings, just his presence, his vibe as a person, is unbelievable,” said DeMar DeRozan. “He doesn’t get tired. I don’t understand it. You should see him before practice. He’s out there doing all types of drills, already sweating and everything. It’s crazy to see.”
Ibaka’s block and three
Returning from that knee injury, Ibaka helped drag the Raptors out of a sluggish start early on with a strong sequence at both ends.
It started when he tracked down Otto Porter Jr., who was streaking in alone off a turnover, denying the Wizards forward at the rim with a smart, clean defensive play. Ibaka then hustled up the floor, took a feed from DeRozan beyond the arc, and nailed Toronto’s first three-pointer of the game.
That accounted for a full third of Ibaka’s points in this one, on a night when his shot simply wasn’t falling. But in a game that saw DeRozan go off for 33, Ibaka’s contributions came elsewhere, like in the eight rebounds he pulled down and the strong defence he played throughout.
“Serge did a great job coming in tonight, finishing up with the rebounds, playing a big five,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. “He had some great energy, great communication. He’s been watching us play. He was hurt last game and he had great ideas the last couple of games. And tonight, he just went out there barking directions and we followed his lead.”
In the fourth quarter, Casey used Ibaka as his centre in a smaller lineup, tasking him with guarding Washington’s Marcin Gortat, who didn’t score a point in the quarter. Ibaka also came up with a pair of crucial rebounds, despite giving up size to Gortat in the paint.
“He gets caught on the perimeter so much because he’s a stretch four, the only time he’s stuck in there is when he’s at the five,” Casey said. “And so now he’s in there battling, grabbing. He’s one of our best athletes, and that’s the kind of rebounding we’ve got to have from him.”
VanVleet’s three from DeRozan
This game’s dagger came with a little more than a minute left when VanVleet, earning some rare fourth-quarter run, nailed a three-pointer to put the Raptors up eight. It was a clutch shot, but what was more notable about it was the player who assisted on the basket: DeRozan.
The Raptors’ primary scorer was driving and drawing a double team, as he does. But instead of trying to force a shot, DeRozan opted instead to kick the ball out to VanVleet, who didn’t hesitate to let fly.
“Any time he gets the ball late, they’re going to double him. I kind of bait my guy into going so I can get the shot sometimes,” VanVleet said. “They’re going to help off of me. I know that. He knows that. That’s what he’s been so great at this year, is drawing two or three or four guys and kicking it out. It shows the trust he has in his guys. We’ve just got to be ready to shoot.”
Is that a pass a younger DeRozan would have made a couple years ago? He says he wants to believe it is — although he’s not sure if he would have thrown it as assertively.
“I think so. But would I be hesitant to do it or would it be automatic?” DeRozan said, snapping his fingers. “I’m not sure. A lot of times it was a me thing. Me maturing, understanding that I don’t have to take that big shot if I’ve got two on me. It’s just my maturity, to pass to the open guy and trust him to make the right shot or play.”
Casey certainly trusted VanVleet, rewarding him for a strong first three quarters with a full 12 minutes of game time in the fourth. The second-year guard scored a team-high six points in the quarter, coming up with a pair of rebounds and assists while he was at it. That’ll make the case for future late-game burn when the Raptors want to go small or help take the load off of Lowry.
“I don’t get many of them, right?” VanVleet said of the late-game minutes. “So, when I get them, I’m trying to make the most of them. Being a competitor, you want to be in the game when it’s on the line and try to take advantage.”