10 things: Raptors overcome tough start, keep Beal in check to beat Wizards

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) drives to the basket against Toronto Raptors forwards Precious Achiuwa (5) and Scottie Barnes (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 109-105 win over the Washington Wizards.

1: The Raptors started slowly and finished sluggishly, but they got the job done. Washington jumped out to a 10-2 start, forcing Nick Nurse to call an early timeout after his team allowed four straight open looks from the rim and from deep. The Raptors woke up around the second quarter, and thoroughly outplayed the Wizards to the point of building up an 18-point lead, before the Wizards made a hard push to come back behind a few tough baskets from Bradley Beal. Nurse called another timeout at that moment to settle his team defensively, but it was the offence that sputtered as the Raptors struggled to create after Washington shifted to a zone defence.

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2: Nurse’s last timeout came in the final minute. The Wizards had finally tied the game behind a breakaway dunk for Montrezl Harrell, who hung on the rim for dramatic effect as the home crowd roared. The Raptors were 6-for-21 from the field in the fourth until that point, as a simple zone coverage seemed to flummox the Raptors who sliced through Washington’s set defence fairly easily in the first three quarters. Nurse’s play call was simple, yet effective. He summed Pascal Siakam to screen for Fred VanVleet, Harrell was caught in no man’s land with his hands down, and VanVleet calmly drained the three. The Wizards made the curious decision to turn to Spencer Dinwiddie for the answer rather than handing it to Beal, and the Raptors were able to secure the miss, run down the clock, then have OG Anunoby crashing the glass for a putback which sealed the win.

3: Scottie Barnes‘ career night did not start well. Barnes made three mistakes in coverage as the Wizards opened the game scoring on their first four shots. On the first basket, Barnes was covering center Daniel Gafford, who came up to screen for Beal, but Barnes failed to contain Beal on the perimeter, and instead was beat off the dribble which forced help down low which opened up the corner shooter on the kick out. The next time down, Beal attacked Barnes again, who switched out onto Beal without communicating, which left two defenders converging on Beal who smartly flipped it over the trap and got Gafford a dunk. The third time down, Barnes and Siakam miscommunicated once again on a switch which got the same result with Gafford finishing at the rim. Nurse whistled for timeouts two minutes in, took Barnes out for Chris Boucher, and it seemed to settle everything down.

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4: Barnes was excellent from that point onward. He was sharper on defence, but it also seemed to light a fire under him as he looked to take his aggression out on the defence. Barnes had the mismatch against rookie shooting guard Corey Kispert, and he sought it out each time by getting down the floor early and sealing his defender, before demanding the ball on the post up. Washington is very conservative with their help defence, preferring to limit rotations and to play things straight up, which meant Barnes had an easy mismatch over which he scored three times over Kispert. The Raptors also worked the pick and roll to great success, where VanVleet would get downhill, engage a second defender, before flipping it to a cutting Barnes who flashed in at the right times for a deep catch. Only one of Barnes’ 12 makes was a jumper, which came from the elbow on a short shot clock situation, while all of his other makes were from the paint. Barnes has great touch around the hoop, and his size and length make him hard to contest at the basket. Recall that in the game against Dallas, Barnes was able to sink a hook shot over the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, so the 6-foot-9 centers on the Wizards were easy in comparison.

5: Barnes was hardly involved in the offence in the fourth quarter when the Raptors struggled. Barnes only got one shot in the fourth quarter which was the last play of the game, where he got Dinwiddie on the switch with five seconds left which he fired a jumper over the top that was recycled by Anunoby. Most of this was a result of the Wizards’ adjustments. First, Kispert didn’t play in the fourth since he was a clear liability who wasn’t even hitting threes. Second, by shifting to a zone, it cut off the Raptors’ ability to get downhill in pick-and-roll scenarios which took away the easy dump-offs to Barnes. Having said that, it was still strange for Barnes to play the whole fourth quarter and barely sniff a shot. One way to involve him against zones would be to have Barnes flash into the gaps around the foul line, and have him make a play from there or just shoot the jumper, but he was looked off a few times. The overall impression is that when it comes down to crunch time, the veterans take control.

6: VanVleet played an excellent all-around game including the go-ahead shot. His playmaking has been excellent of late, as VanVleet dished out 12 assists including six to Barnes at the hoop. It’s been interesting to see the dynamic between VanVleet and Siakam, who trade off as No. 1 options depending on the defence. In scenarios where teams are trapping, VanVleet plays more off the ball and allows Siakam to operate. But against teams like Washington who employ traditional drop coverages, VanVleet is much more effective attacking in pick-and-roll between his ability to pull-up, or getting into the lane to feed kick-outs and cutters. Defensively, VanVleet’s effort is never in question as he was extremely active both in helping out at the rim with timely strips, or by shrinking the space against Beal.

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7: The Raptors forced Beal into nine turnovers. Beal has always spoken highly of Nurse’s innovative defensive game plans, and this is why. After regrouping from their poor start, the Raptors were able to make life miserable on Beal as they caught him slipping with a number of aggressive traps. The first time it worked was when Gary Trent Jr. jumped in with a surprise double on Beal in the corner, before proceeding to strip him and get out on the break. Trent Jr. and VanVleet were then able to force Beal into two half-court violations by catching him right as he crossed half, and the Raptors forced Beal into three errant passes when he turned the corner where he instantly saw a crowd. Even on the last play of the game for Washington, with the Raptors holding a five-point advantage on the Wizards’ inbound play, Trent Jr. was attached to Beal at the hip as he swirled around a crowd of screens, only to step out of bounds as he caught it for the fading three-point attempt.

8: Trent Jr. was smooth in his return. His disruptiveness on defence was key as the Raptors built their lead, and he was an important factor in Beal’s off night. Trent Jr.’s ability to get a bucket is also a skill that was sorely missed in his absence. Although he only did it successfully on two occasions — a stepback three off the dribble and an and-one over Beal — those are the exact types of plays that the Raptors were missing. Although he isn’t the go-to option, Trent Jr. is the only guard on the team outside of VanVleet who can create something for himself in a halfcourt setting, and that’s where the front office should be looking to reinforce at the trade deadline and beyond.

9: Nurse hinted that he would extend his rotation after catching flack over the way he used his starters. And he was at least true to his word in the first half which saw nine players suit up for the Raptors, including Yuta Watanabe making a cameo against fellow countryman Rui Hachimura on Japanese heritage night. Unfortunately for Watanabe, his six-minute stint was all he got as Nurse reverted right back to his core seven in the second half. Even Justin Champagnie, who did okay as the token seventh man, only saw the floor for two minutes. Nurse explained before the game that the reason he’s riding his players so hard is that he wants to see how they fare against title contenders, which does make sense.

10: Nurse added that his players are “100 per cent” on board with the idea. VanVleet, who has carried the heaviest load out of anybody on the team, backed up his coach post-game, where he discussed that it’s not entirely on the coach. He wants to play, he wants to compete, there are games to win and all-star appearances to make, and clearly, the team plays best when the best players play. There are two things to consider here. The first is how to maximize players, who have visibly grown tired at the end of games, and might need to be paced more strategically to close out the fourth quarter. The other worry is if heavy usage will lead to injuries, and that is the biggest gamble more than anything else.

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