Raptors lose to Wizards but return to Toronto still important win

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) drives past Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) during first half NBA action in Toronto Wednesday, October 20, 2021. (Evan Buhler/CP)

TORONTO — The victory was in just showing up; in being here.

It’s hard to overstate that. Pick your milepost and reflect: A year ago the Toronto Raptors were scrambling around preparing to relocate to Tampa and it’s been close enough to two years — 600 days to be precise — since Scotiabank Arena was full for an NBA game.

Life as we knew it was upended for all and tragically so for far too many in Toronto and elsewhere. The losses — personal, financial and in moments gone that will never come back — can’t be undone.

But as the Raptors took the floor against the Washington Wizards in front of 19,800 fully vaccinated, mask-wearing fans there was a glimpse of life after COVID and it was black and red and brightly lit and accompanied by a bunch of new(ish) songs by Drake, the Raptors’ official soundtrack.

How special a moment was it? The Global Ambassador himself was courtside in time for the national anthems.

The first “Let’s Go Raptors” chants went up before the ball did, and so did the goosebumps.

“It’s good to be home,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said when he addressed the crowd.

And it is.

One of the biggest cheers — and by far the biggest smile — in the pre-game introductions was generated for and by Dalano Banton, the six-foot-seven rookie guard from Rexdale, the first homegrown prospect to start his career with the hometown team.

And it was beautiful.

But then the ball went up, and it was decidedly not.

It was like the Raptors went to Tampa and turned the clock back to 1998.

In the scope of a long NBA season the Raptors’ 98-83 loss to the Wizards — like them, one of a handful of teams projected to be competing for a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament — likely won’t matter too much. It’s one of 82, symbolism aside. Blame it on the moment, blame it on the opponent, blame it on a Raptors team stocked with newcomers and youngsters that will need time to gel — but the Raptors just didn’t have it.

Like, they really didn’t.

What went wrong?

“Everything. Everything,” VanVleet said. “I mean, listen: It’s going to be some of these, right? It is what it is, nothing we can do about it. At this point, we’re trying things, a lot of things, and none of it worked out tonight.”

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It wasn’t just that a young team’s weaknesses were exposed, it was that all of them were exposed at once, and none of the anticipated strengths were evident until too late. The Raptors were expected to struggle in a half-court game, and they were dreadful. They were supposed to be able to force teams to play in transition and at a high tempo and they couldn’t. They were supposed to lack perimeter shooting and were 7-of-34 from deep.

Highly touted rookie Scottie Barnes (12 points, eight rebounds) had some moments, but as a group they had many more where they looked out of place and overmatched. In the early going the Raptors’ best player might have been Goran Dragic, the 34-year-old point guard who was thrown into the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade as salary cap ballast — not a good sign. Gary Trent Jr. celebrated the first day of his three-year, $54-million contract by shooting 2-of-9 from the floor.

This was not the pre-season, where the Raptors went 3-2 and looked like they could control the tempo of games.

“I’ve been telling them for a month now, a month and a half. Like, it’s different,” said VanVleet. “You can get all the pats on the back and all the hype and everything that you want. Pre-season was great, training camp was great. It does not matter. There’s different lights out there. These guys are coming to beat us, they don’t care. You know what I mean?”

The peak moment of the game might have been — no, it most certainly was — when Banton made his NBA debut late in the third quarter and immediately hit a running three-pointer from centre. Unfortunately, it only cut the Wizards lead to 81-59. Banton kept trying though. In the game’s best sequence early in the fourth quarter he found Chris Boucher on a gorgeous no-look pass in transition; scored himself on a coast-to-coast run off a turnover and set up a Khem Birch slam off penetration.

“It’s definitely a great learning experience,” said Banton, who said he was “grateful” his half-court heave went in. “I feel like any time you’re out there, whether you’re down or up, is a time to learn and a time to build on what you’ve been building on. But I feel like just kind of understanding that in this league, you’ll never be out of the game. We have a lot of talented guys. So whether we’re down 30 or 20, it’s kind of next possession, keep playing, keep fighting. At any point the game could change, and with a fan base like we have, momentum shifts. Just to stay in the game and play to the finish and play until the game’s done.”

They tried. With the Toronto-born rookie and two other Canadians on the floor, along with rookie Barnes, the Raptors briefly played like head coach Nick Nurse hopes they can. Their flurry cut the Wizards’ lead to 15 with eight minutes to play, but the Wizards pushed back — aided by a couple of Raptors turnovers — and the game was decided.

The Raptors — who lost that last game they played in Toronto to Charlotte way back on Feb. 28, 2020 — now have a home losing streak at Scotiabank Arena that stands at two.

Some of the early issues were to be anticipated. The first game of a season is always a bit charged, this one more than most.

“I thought there wasn’t much pace, we seemed to be in thinking mode a lot until you see that one little stretch there, the way we played in the pre-season. Up the floor, guys are moving, cutting, flying, getting back cuts, getting better shots and all that kind stuff,” Nurse said after the game.

“(We) didn’t handle the moment very well, I don’t think, in lots of areas.”

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The Raptors handled the Wizards comfortably in their last exhibition game just over a week ago. But when the lights came on the Wizards tried a lot harder.

Toronto has hopes of pushing the pace and living in transition off a swarming, long-armed defence. The Wizards came up with a good game plan to counter that strategy though: While they did cough up 22 turnovers, they were aggressive in covering up for their errors, limiting Toronto to just 17 points on their give-aways, a poor ratio. The Raptors’ own sloppiness (18 turnovers) didn’t help. In general, Washington made a great effort to get back defensively in any situation. The first handful of times the Raptors pushed the ball forward after a defensive rebound, they got to half court and there were three, four and often five Wizards gathered defensively, ready for anything.

The result was the Raptors spent a lot of time playing half-court basketball against a set defence, and — predictably — they struggled mightily, mainly with their shooting. That the Raptors had 19 offensive rebounds to the Wizards seven, won the turnover battle 22-19 and even made more threes (although not much to brag about given Washington was 5-of-27 and the Raptors were 7-of-34) and still lost paints a picture.

The only way to lose a game like that is to shoot 30.9 per cent from the floor. Toronto trailed 57-37 after two quarters and shot just 29 per cent from the floor in the first half. Anunoby — coming off a blistering pre-season and projected by many to have a breakout season offensively — looked out of sorts and was 1-of-10 in the first, his only score coming on an offensive rebound. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting. VanVleet tried to force his way to the rim with mixed results. He started 5-of-13 and finished 5-of-20. When he tried to distribute as he did on a quick hitter in the second quarter as the game was showing signs of slipping away, he created a wide-open corner look for Barnes, but the rookie — whose shooting is his weak spot at this stage — air-balled it.

Precious Achiuwa had the prettiest play of the night — a crossover, drive and lefty dunk in traffic — but he botched a couple of lobs at the rim, dropped some passes in the lane and got burned by Wizards star Bradley Beal on a switch. Barnes’ first NBA basket came on a nifty left-handed baby hook in the lane, but most of the time he looked a little out of place on offence given he can’t properly space the floor as a shooter, isn’t a post-up or roll threat and isn’t ready to create off the dribble against NBA defenders yet.

And when the Raptors weren’t missing, they were fouling. They put the Wizards on the line nine times in the second quarter alone. The parade to the line prompted Nurse’s first technical foul of the season, but Washington converted that free throw, too.

In all it wasn’t the triumphant homecoming everyone might have scripted and in many ways the organization and fanbase deserved. But there’s no debate after everything that’s happened in the past 600 days, the beauty was that it happened. That the Raptors are back and a full arena can enjoy them again.

The rest? There are issues and some of them were evident in Game 1 of a long 82-game season.

But for one night, it wasn’t that they won or lost. What mattered was that they played the game.

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