TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors got the job done.
It was nothing to be particularly proud about. The Washington Wizards arrived at Scotiabank Arena short three starters and having gone 3-9 since they ran over the Raptors in the first of a two-game series in Washington earlier this month.
To their credit, Toronto looked serious about the task at hand in the first half, but it didn’t last. They allowed Washington back in the game by surrendering a 38-point third quarter to the visitors. The Raptors weren’t entirely better in the fourth as they made little mistakes like, I don’t know, not bothering to cover Wizards sharpshooter Corey Kispert (5-of-11 from deep) in the strongside corner, letting him hit an inexplicably wide-open three as both O.G Anunoby and Scottie Barnes failed to account for him. And while Kristaps Porzingis is a more-than-capable three-point shooter, the lanky Wizards giant is no threat to put it on the floor and finish at the rim, so why the Raptors were flying past him on every pump fake was hard to fathom.
Let’s just say the details weren’t all nailed down, so fitting for a Raptors season that has seen more than its fair share of loose threads and frayed edges.
But it’s not how but how many when it’s all added up in the end and Toronto’s 114-104 win is ultimately more important than non-existent style points.
The win allowed ninth-place Toronto to improve to 37-38 on the season and stay a half-game clear of hard-charging Chicago in 10th. The Atlanta Hawks lost and have the same record as Toronto, but have eighth place because they won the season series with the Raptors. The loss likely eliminates the Wizards from realistic contention for a play-in spot as Toronto is now four games up with seven games to play and also holds the head-to-head tiebreaker on Washington.
Clinching — more or less — a play-in spot hardly seems like something to celebrate, but it might end up being the Raptors’ high point this season. Who knows, but at least they can still keep pushing forward, or trying.
Fighting for eighth or ninth place wasn’t on the Raptors’ agenda to start the season, but sometimes you just have to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
“I think it just stretches the realm of reality of what the team is,” said VanVleet when asked his thoughts on the play-in tournament as a whole. “It can create you know, unrealistic situations for a lot of teams. I think for us — a team that’s been talented and kind of underperformed for the majority of the year, I think we feel really good about getting in and getting to our spot and making some noise, but again, you still got to get it, right?”
The Raptors were led by Anunoby who finished with 29 points on 11-of-21 shooting and four threes, while VanVleet added 28 points, seven assists, five triples and three steals. Toronto got good news before the game as Barnes (wrist) returned to the lineup after being out for two games. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals. Toronto shot 45.9 per cent from the floor and 11-of-31 from deep and forced the Wizards into 18 turnovers for 25 points. Washington shot 44.2 per cent from the floor, was 16-of-36 from three and scored just 11 points on the Raptors’ 13 giveaways. Porzingis had 26 points on 17 field goal attempts with four threes in seven tries.
The Raptors finish their four-game homestand on Tuesday against Kyle Lowry and the Miami Heat, who are in seventh place and fighting for sixth. The Raptors then play five on the road, starting Friday in Philadelphia. They head to Charlotte for two, then Boston for two more before hosting Milwaukee on April 9, the last game of the regular season. Barring a sudden streak of excellence, this is probably who the Raptors are: within hailing distance of the .500 mark, but likely to finish the season with less than 41 wins and likely needing to win two games in the play-in tournament — one on the road — to qualify for the post-season.
It’s not anyone’s dream scenario, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.
“I’m very like, strict on basketball purity and rules,” said VanVleet. “So I’m not the biggest fan of [the play-in] but we’re in so we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The Raptors showed some of their better traits to start the game. They attacked the Wizards defensively and showed that one of the benefits of having five players averaging at least 15 points a game is that there’s always someone ready to assert themselves.
Anunoby was on a mission early. He’s gotten plenty of attention — and justifiably so — for his individual defence this season. He was back at it against the Wizards as Nurse was matching his minutes with Porzingis, exactly the kind of skilled big that Anunoby has shown the ability to inhale this season and at other points in his career. His quickness makes them uncomfortable when they face up or put the ball on the floor and he’s too big and strong for even the most dominant paint scorers to take him for granted, and Porzingis isn’t that. And given Washington was without Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, and Monte Morris — two of their leading scorers and their starting point guard, respectively — it was likely going to be a tough night for Porzingis anyway.
But it was Anunoby’s offence that made it additionally so. The big wing was on it early and hit two quick three and a pair of pull-up jumpers over the seven-foot-three Porzingis in the early going before lining up for another triple as Toronto jumped out to a 22-10 lead. Anunoby sat briefly, came back at the end of the quarter, and hit another jumper and a triple. He was halfway to his career-high of 36 at the end of the first quarter, and Toronto led 37-21.
In the second quarter VanVleet put his shoulder in. The Wizards had cut the Raptors’ lead to nine — taking advantage of a bench-heavy unit in the first part of the period with Pascal Siakam anchoring Christian Koloko, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Malachi Flynn, and Chris Boucher. Siakam did his best with 11 in the quarter, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the Wizards. VanVleet fixed that as he hit Siakam for an open three, made a steal and scored a lay-up, made another steal, and scored a jumper before Anunoby made the Raptors’ third steal in the space of 60 seconds and went the other way for a dunk. VanVleet found Jakob Poeltl for a lay-up to complete a 14-3 run in the space of three minutes that helped Toronto start the third quarter leading 63-46.
So far so good, as far as the Raptors’ game plan against a slumping, short-handed team.
“You know how it is: You’ve got to go play and play well,” said Nurse before the game. “We’ve got to be physical with these guys. We’ve got to guard them and put out that defensive effort we put out the other night. I thought we pursued the ball and contested shots really hard. It translated into a lot of really good offence and unselfish offence.”
And if you don’t? Well, then you have a third quarter like the Raptors had. The Wizards figured if they came all this way, they might as well play hard and came out and hit four threes as part of a 16-4 run to start the half and cut Toronto’s lead to five in less than four minutes. Hopes for an early blowout and a relaxing night’s work dissipated. Daniel Gafford tried to block VanVleet into the first row, and told him about it. Jordan Goodwin did it to Anunoby and Johnny Davis hit the Wizards’ eighth triple of the quarter on 12 attempts and took advantage of four Raptors turnovers to start the fourth trailing just 87-84.
“They were really feeling it and throwing everything in,” said Nurse after the win. “In the fourth, same thing, but we got to ’em and at least made ’em pump fake and sidestep and got ’em out of rhythm a little bit more. We just weren’t pressing up on shooters enough in the third like we had been or like we wanted to.”
Fortunately the Raptors recovered from there — Anunoby finishing strong with nine fourth-quarter points certainly helped, as did some strong play off the bench by Boucher and Dowtin Jr.
Toronto was able to win going away, leaving them to begin dreaming big play-in dreams, presumably.