Down OG Anunoby for the first time all season and visiting a team that had beaten them twice without John Wall already, the Toronto Raptors were in for a good test against the Washington Wizards on Friday. The game required Dwane Casey to stretch his rotations in new and unexpected ways and to trust new players and new units. It also required a strong closing stretch, some locked-in defense late, and a torrid shooting night from the team’s specialist. All told, there was a lot of positive to take from a 102-95 victory, something that seemed fairly unlikely at the outset.
There were warning signs everywhere early on, particularly in the middle. Jonas Valanciunas picked up a pair of quick fouls to continue the trend of him having trouble with Marcin Gortate, and he had to take a seat just two minutes into the game. Jakob Poeltl stopped a Gortat post-up immediately upon checking in, but the Wizards hit the offensive glass and seemed to be coming up with every loose ball. Bradley Beal was also just as much a problem out of the gate as he was in their earlier matchups, breaking free for a pair of open threes to put the Raptors down 13-4 and send them to an early timeout. That breather did little, and the Wizards extended their lead to 14 with free jump shots before DeMar DeRozan broke through and scored at the rim and Serge Ibaka drew a foul. It wasn’t until the bench began filtering in that things settled down some.
That started with a Fred VanVleet drive-and-kick to Pascal Siakam, who attacked a short close-out and dumped it off to Poeltl for a basket, the exact type of play that wasn’t there in the opening minutes. The Raptors also empowered Siakam to switch onto Beal off the ball, helping produce a deflection, and he followed by stopping Morris on a post-up and then beating everyone down the floor (albeit he missed the transition bucket). Valanciunas’ earlier foul trouble meant Lucas Nogueira got a first-quarter look, which also meant a new DeRozan-and-bench wrinkle that wasn’t exactly seamless. A few defensive miscommunications and continued shaky shooting – including another Siakam miss at the rim undercutting some high-energy minutes and an 0-of-7 mark on threes in the quarter – precluded the Raptors from drawing any closer than eight at the end of the quarter.
VanVleet got the Raptors on the board from outside to start the second, set up by Delon Wright on what looked to be a new set (or option off of it, anyway), and Siakam followed with a strong drive for an and-one. Free-throws for Nogueira and a three for C.J. Miles came on the tail of those plays, and the Raptors were right back within a point out of nowhere, the new all-bench unit responsible for a 10-3 run. The strong run continued and interestingly saw Malcolm Miller get a nod where Powell could be expected to return, and Miller promptly gave the Raptors their first lead with a corner three. Casey even gave looks to a Valanciunas-led bench group and a Lowry-Valanciunas-bench group briefly, the absence of OG Anunoby and the early foul trouble throwing just about everything for a loop and giving a glimpse of some potentially useful options.
Now there's a 'LET'S GO RAPTORS' chant inside Capital One Arena.
We The North really that strong in DC?!?
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) March 3, 2018
The starters (with Miller) kept up the bench’s energy turnaround well as they filtered back in, with Lowry hitting a tough shot off-window and Valanciunas sealing for a post-up and then attacking after a pump-fake. The Raptors still didn’t clean up their Beal coverage entirely, and he made them pay with a couple of nice mid-range buckets, though the effort and execution levels were up at both ends, which goes a long way. An Ibaka put-back after getting blocked on a three was emblematic of that shift, and the Wizards showed some frustration in response to their tough second quarter. Toronto lost the plot just a bit in the closing minutes – a missed two-for-one opportunity seemed to be cause for disagreement – and the Raptors probably felt pretty good getting to halftime up four despite missing a handful of free throws and shooting poorly from outside.
DeRozan took control of the offense to start the second half, then conceded it to Lowry and Valanciunas for consecutive threes, the early burst putting Washington on their heels some. The pull-away was slow to come, as Powell passed up an open three, Ibaka missed a few mid-range jumpers, and Beal’s supporting staff took advantage of the attention he was drawing. The Wizards cut a 10-point lead back down to two with a 9-1 run midway through the quarter, and Casey once again tweaked the rotation some, keeping Valanciunas out opposite Gortat even as the bench began filtering in. Those changes couldn’t slow Washington’s counter-push, with Otto Porter taking the lead back with an and-one. A more familiar DeRozan-and-bench unit closed out the quarter, and Miles came through with a pair of huge threes just to maintain a lead heading into the fourth.
It was Miles keeping them afloat again early on, still standing as the only Raptor who could hit from deep. He’d eventually miss, too, the number of squandered open looks for the team as a whole hanging over a tight game like a specter, lined by the missed free throws. Adding Lowry to the bench unit should have theoretically helped, but Tomas Satoransky was doing a nice job on him most of the night and then Lowry got caught trying to bait a foul on a Ian Mahinmi switch. Miles came through again with a deep three – at that point he had five while the rest of the team was 4-of-22 – and DeRozan’s return lent further help, as he quickly set up Poeltl to go back ahead three with five minutes to go.
— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) March 3, 2018
This all meant a tight close out again, a good opportunity for the Raptors to show some growth in that regard against a quality opponent. It was encouraging to start. Miles missed from outside and Lowry picked up an unnecessary technical (on the heels of an earlier one for Wright), sure, but around those moments was another great DeRozan feed to Poeltl, a decent DeRozan miss, a good Miles attack, and a Miles three from the corner. As it turns out, late-game offense is a lot easier to come by when Miles is just launching napalm from everywhere. It made for a 14-4 run with nary an objectionable shot attempt, wrestling control back for the final minutes.
Lowry went awry a bit momentarily, getting blocked on a mid-range jumper and then picking up a foul the other way. The Raptors kept their composure, chewing up a lot of clock, picking up a steal, and then trusting DeRozan to hit a jumper back the other way. DeRozan then came up with a big defensive rebound and followed up blowing by the Wizards for a reverse to extend the lead to eight in the final minute. Poeltl’s impact down the stretch didn’t show on the box score here, and a smaller hybrid group with the stars, VanVleet, Miles, and Poeltl really had a nice flow in this instance. They would concede an offensive rebound that resulted in a Porter three, otherwise turning in a really strong defensive close with very smart, composed offense, save for a few missed free throws.
This was exactly the kind of response you hope to see from the Raptors after a bad first quarter. On a night they couldn’t seem to hit from outside (other than Miles) or connect at the line, they dialed up the defense, holding a top-10 offense to a respectable (considering the start) 107.7 offensive rating overall and an incredible 84 in the fourth quarter. Poeltl’s defense was instrumental, they worked well around a size disadvantage to help the offense breathe and keep a red-hot Miles on the floor, and they beat a team admittedly down a star but still playing quite well on the road. They did so while shooting poorly overall, while struggling a bit on the glass, and while getting little from a pair of starters. In other words, they did so not at their best, and they did it on national TV, potentially killing some old jokes moving forward.
It wasn’t perfect, and there’s still room for improvement from here. It was something close to exactly the way people have been clamoring for the Raptors to win games on nights their imperfect, and that’s not nothing.