Glory could be tough to catch for the Toronto Raptors this season.
Even snagging 10th place and whatever slim chance the play-in tournament might provide is no certain thing for an 11th-place team with two wins in the past 36 days before last night.
So you take solace where you can.
You take it from a buzzer-beating triple from 22-year-old newcomer Gary Trent Jr. to give Toronto a 103-101 win over the Washington Wizards.
You take it from the inspired play by rookie point guard Malachi Flynn who is taking advantage of the sudden dose of minutes that he’s been waiting for all season.
You take it from the encouragement gained by stringing together consecutive wins in April after going 1-of-13 in March.
Trent Jr. has had a fantastic four-game stretch of shooting after a couple of rough outings to start his Raptors career but capped it off when he grabbed a defensive rebound with five seconds left, weaved his way up the floor and shook free from Wizards guard Raul Neto with a behind-the-back dribble and a subtle push off that Neto tried to sell as an offensive foul.
Trent Jr. then gathered, rose up and let it fly from 27 feet as the horn sounded.
His plan was simple:
“Make a play,” said the third-year guard who said the last game-winner he hit was in the G-League in his rookie season. “I’d seen there was about five seconds left on the clock when I got the rebound. Went down there, wanted to get a clean look. I felt if I got a clean look off, I’d have a pretty good chance of it going in. It did. That’s just the work I do. I practise those shots. It’s part of the game.”
But that was just a pleasing desert on a night with some that came with some tasty appetizers after a month of cold Kraft Dinners.
With the Raptors down to nine healthy bodies and neither of them point guards Kyle Lowry (foot) or Fred VanVleet (hip flexor), it was a chance for rookie Flynn to grab some glory of his own.
Trent Jr. hit the game-winner, but Flynn was making winning plays all game as he finished with 16 points, six rebounds, four steals, two blocks in 34 minutes – all career highs – along with four assists.
In that sense, he was picking up where he left off on Friday when he played a career-high 31 minutes in Toronto’s blowout win over Golden State on Friday and responded with career-highs in points (14) and assists (5) along with five rebounds and two steals.
His defence was game-changing. Raptors head coach was planning to give him his first NBA start if VanVleet – a game-time decision – couldn’t go but ended up changing his mind since he didn’t want to throw the rookie to the wolves against Russell Westbrook, the former league MVP and Bradly Beal, who leads the NBA in scoring.
In the end, Beal didn’t play and the Raptors started poorly in the first quarter and third quarters, so Nurse said he wished he had started Flynn.
Either way, things worked out.
“Malachi had a great game so it's good to see him, yeah, play, whatever he played virtually starters minutes tonight and that's what I was planning anyway that he would play virtually starters minutes,” said Nurse. “But he’s really, really, packing in the box score there, right, four steals, a couple blocks, four assists, six rebounds, I mean really, really good game by him.
“We’ve asked him to get, I call it dirtier, get on the floor some, get your hands in some, knock the ball away some, make some plays at both ends,” added Nurse. “ … He’s doing fine, he’s making some progress here.”
The Raptors needed the spark. The win improved their record to 20-30 with 22 games to play and helps keep alive hopes they can worm their way into the playoffs, get healthy, hit stride and throw a scare into someone.
You never know, but if Trent Jr. – who has looked good as the centre piece in the trade that sent Norm Powell to Portland -- and especially Flynn, who has struggled to find playing time since being the 29th pick in the 2020 draft, can grow into their opportunities the season will turn out better than might have been thought just a week ago.
It’s taken time to get to this point for Flynn who had a hard time finding minutes early on behind VanVleet and Lowry; was recalled to the G-League and then called back up only to miss three weeks in health and safety protocols due to COVID.
Of late, his minutes have come more consistently – double figures in nine of the past 10 games and 65 over the past two – and his comfort level has grown along with it.
“I think it's just going out there and being assertive,” said Flynn. “Be aggressive try to make plays. Don't do too much but at the end of the day I think that's why they got me, so just try to go out there and do it to the best of my ability.
Flynn’s not the first rookie point guard to have to bide his time and earn his minutes. VanVleet – who Flynn is often compared with and who just signed an $84-million contract in the off-season – saw double-figure minutes just four times in his first 65 games as a rookie.
But Flynn made a strong case for more even when VanVleet and Lowry – both considered day-to-day – are back at full strength.
He was Toronto’s best player, apologies to Trent Jr.
Defensively he was at the heart of everything good Toronto did, it seemed, and like VanVleet – who often is credited for blocks that he believes should be steals – Flynn’s ability to disrupt ball-handlers whether they’re shooting or not is a gift.
Watching VanVleet – among the league leaders in steals and deflections – helps, but Flynn has plenty of his own instincts to leverage.
“I think just being active, having active hands is kind of something that I've tried to do my whole life, you just got to be smart with it,” he said. “Can't reach too much but definitely watching for how Fred do it, he's real good at it and then just going out there and trying to do some of the same things.”
It was Flynn’s first time playing against Westbrook and he got the full effect. The Wizards veteran lightning bolt finished with a triple-double with 14 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists and hit a go-ahead three with 40 seconds to play.
But he also shot 2-of-11 in the fourth quarter, and missed his first nine shots of the period, a major reason the Raptors were able to come back after trailing by 19 with three minutes left in the third.
In contrast, Flynn got stronger as the game went on. The Raptors looked like having consecutive days off had left them sluggish as the Wizards jumped out to a 23-9 lead on a Westbrook bank shot after nine minutes as Washington led 28-19 at the end of one.
By that time Flynn was in the game and at the second quarter began he went to work, starting with a strip on Wizards guard Ish Smith and a three at the other end and then two more high-end defensive plays that led to Wizards turnover and Raptors hoops. Shortly after that Flynn attacked the lane, drew the foul and completed the three-point play.
It was the start of one of the most positive stretches of the game for the Raptors before their comeback in the fourth.
Even Flynn’s mistakes had positives. He made a weak turnover after a mix-up on a pick-and-roll but hustled back to block Neto at the rim, something the Raptors bench appreciated.
“I turned it over so I had to make a play,” said Flynn. “I had to get a stop and he missed it, I made him miss. But yeah the coaches, everybody just said ‘Good job, keep going’”
You get the sense that Flynn just might do that, and Trent Jr. has plans to do the same. Where they can lead a Raptors team that’s in uncharted waters is a mystery at this point. That there won’t be any parades in July seems certain; they aren’t miracle workers.
But at the very least April is looking up.