The situation was similar enough, if not the exact same. A Sunday afternoon home game at the Air Canada Centre and some good vibes coming in. Two weeks earlier, they were high on survival, a 3-3 record on a tough six-game trip spelling out a trap game in their return home. Fast-forward, and the Raptors were winners of three straight and five of six, were getting Serge Ibaka back, and would once again be opposite a Washington Wizards team missing their engine in John Wall.
All of the warning signs were there. This time, the Raptors were armed with a stinging recent memory, an embarrassing showing too fresh for complacency to have healed the wound. Losing to a would-be rival, one with eyes on ascending above them in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, twice on home court would sting, and the energy this time around would have to be the polar opposite of a fortnight prior.
The Raptors succeeded in that regard, turning in a fun 100-91 victory that could have looked a little lopsided had the two sides not varied diametrically from their 3-point shooting means. Washington gave a game effort, led by Bradley Beal but betrayed by a lack of depth, and nearly to a man the Raptors turned in strong showings, whether in starring roles or in critical support.
“Our energy, our activity, all five guys on a string offensively and defensively, flying around, rebounding,” Fred VanVleet summarized after the game. “Beal got off to a hot start again tonight, but I think we were able to change some things in the second half and make an adjustment. It was kind of like deja vu the way he score on us last time, so we didn’t want to let that happen again. We wanted to make adjustments to slow him down. It’s a long season. You just want to improve each game. We just want to take little steps over the last few weeks.”
Neither side came out looking especially sharp, with neither side scoring in the opening two minutes. The Raptors would remain cold for the entire first quarter, at least from outside, relying on some nice work inside and five offensive rebounds to keep their heads above water. On the defensive side, Jonas Valanciunas struggled in pick-and-rolls with Beal in attack mode, and the support around him stepped up more than it had in the last meeting between the teams. Beal managed 12 in the quarter, enough to keep the Wizards even at 28 despite his teammates shooting 6-of-16.
Dwane Casey mixing up his rotation patterns some made for an interesting close to the quarter. It was Kyle Lowry operating with the bench late rather than early in the second while DeMar DeRozan took an early breather, and that meant Lucas Nogueira drawing in as the first center off the bench since that pairing always seems to work well. Pascal Siakam got an early nod, too, playing a few minutes at small forward in a huge lineup with Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas, and then Nogueira. The rotating big pairings produced some nice moments, too, with Ibaka dunking off of an elbow give-and-go with Valanciunas and Siakam throwing Nogueira a lob for a dunk.
The all-bench group continued to see time early in the second, and to the surprise of nobody, the defense was stout. With Beal on the bench, the Wizards struggled with turnovers early, and a couple of nice VanVleet plays on offense helped key the usual low-scoring (8-4) mini-run this group is making rote. DeRozan re-entered to play with a hybrid group that saw everyone’s favorite OG Anunoby-Siakam pairing get some minutes, and some stout defensive possessions as a group coincided with DeRozan getting on a bit of a heater, scoring eight straight Raptors points and 16 in the quarter.
Washington’s outside shooting prevented the Raptors from pulling too far ahead, even with Anunoby trying to answer and Wizard turnovers abounding. It was a lot of Beal once again, including a putback on his own miss against a great Lowry contest – the principle of verticalowry! – that saw him earn a technical foul because officials have had enough of him, like the Raptors to that point. Beal would finish the half with 23, essentially keeping Washington close single-handedly outside of some brief Kelly Oubre action, and while Anunoby put in an admirable effort guarding him one-on-one or in the pick-and-roll, he struggled some when Beal worked off the ball. Even with Toronto’s shaky 5-of-21 mark on threes, they managed 60 points in the half, enough for a five-point lead at the break.
Toronto came out looking to trap Beal a little more to disrupt him out of a comfort zone, and Lowry took on a larger share of that assignment. It didn’t exactly work, with his teammates finally starting to pick him up in support and a rudderless Raptors offense leading to a 13-4 Washington run to wrestle back control of the game. A quick turn to the bench helped, with Siakam lending his customary boost of energy on the defensive end both in transition and on the glass, then following with a put-back dunk the other way. Miles followed with a dunk that surprised him and a step-back three that didn’t, and the Raptors had successfully warded off an early third-quarter malaise. Things stayed tight through the frame, with the Raptors holding a 79-76 edge in no small part thanks to the strong play of DeRozan.
“There’s gonna be nights like that,” Casey said of the 10-of-39 3-point shooting. “We said that at the beginning of the year: You’re gonna have nights where some of ’em look ugly and you’re gonna have to win ugly. That’s where DeMar’s game comes in. I thought he did an excellent job of attacking, picking his spots, he had six assists, so he did a good job of doing what he does.”
Any risk of late-Sunday dreariness setting in was stymied by Siakam playing the role of human Red Bull, delivering a massive transition block on Mike Scott. That was emblematic of another defense-heavy stretch from the bench group, who won another four-minute segment by locking down, to the tune of 9-5. Ibaka’s return brought some welcome stops with his rim protection, and he and Siakam look as complementary as logic would suggest, Ibaka spacing with Siakam posting up (and scoring against Marcin Gortat, no less).
“The run-down block that he got was just all heart and hustle and toughness and persistence,” Casey said, later pointing to Siakam’s team-best plus-18 mark. “I’ve said it for the last two, three weeks, he’s playing as well as anybody right now. Just with his speed, his heart, and his attention to detail. He’s just on point with everything.”
That earned that duo the closing nod alongside Lowry, DeRozan, and Fred VanVleet, and that group found itself in a war of attrition to close out. Ibaka and Beal got under each other’s skin (Beal scored just four points in the second half and wore that in his demeanor), VanVleet and Otto Porter traded words, and the Wizards were within five with under two minutes to go. DeRozan and VanVleet each hit back-breaking threes, Siakam forced a Tim Frazier turnover, and DeRozan capped the game off with a one-handed dunk streaking off the wing. The VanVleet three should stand out for some time, too, as it was a late-and-close scenario in which DeRozan deferred to an open teammate, something he’s done a terrific job of in general but not as consistently in these scenarios.
“I think so. But would I be hesitant to do it? Or would it be automatic?” DeRozan wondered with a snap of his fingers. “I’m not sure. A lot of times it was a me thing, me maturing and understanding I don’t have to take that big shot if I got two on me. Just my maturity to pass to the open guy and trust him to make the right shot or play.”
It was a fitting end to a fun back-and-forth and a tremendous night for DeRozan, who scored 33 points despite just one free-throw attempt and who added eight rebounds and six assists (the 25-5-5 watch is real – he’s up to 25.2-4.4-4.9 on the year). He’s been terrific for the bulk of the year and looks to have made yet another fundamental improvement that, should it sustain, will help make the Raptors more multifaceted when the leverage increases.
It’s also quite a turnaround from the last meeting, where the Raptors played so poorly Casey says in looking back he already can’t recognize that team. Those nights will still happen, and the absence of Wall in both meetings should keep the team from getting too confident in the season series as a whole. That loss stands out, though, the team’s only really poor showing in their last nine games. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, with 20 or more assists in each victory (and they turned the ball over only eight times here), and they’re a 50-50 DeRozan proposition from being on a seven-game surge. To hit a stride like this through injuries and relying heavily on depth, and to maintain it when the outside shots aren’t dropping, is encouraging.
The next test comes in the form of a three-games-in-four-nights road-trip against middling competition, and it’ll be yet another strong signal if the Raptors can take care of those teams handily away from home.