This could easily have been the trap game for the Raptors. Opening the season with three games in four nights, including Friday night’s heavyweight bout with the Boston Celtics, it would’ve been almost expected for the Raptors to have a let-down game in Washington, especially with Delon Wright still not back from his preseason thigh injury and Kawhi Leonard given the night off for rest.
With the matchup against Ian Mahinmi, the Raptors opted to go back to Jonas Valanciunas as the starting center rather than Serge Ibaka, who was coming off a huge night against Boston, and also gave Norman Powell and OG Anunoby the start on the wings, with Pascal Siakam moving back to the bench to help with playmaking, which was a struggle for the second unit against the Celtics, and might remain so until Wright returns to the lineup.
With this starting group, the easy concern was that Powell might be asked to do too much with the ball in his hands, as Lowry excels beside another ball handler and Valanciunas is at his best as the big man in the pick and roll, and that showed some early. The game got off to a sluggish start as Toronto once again showed their defensive prowess. The Wizards hit some tough shots but not getting much easy, as the Raptors repeatedly forced them to choose less efficient shots, and it paid off with a two-point lead after one quarter thanks to 8 points from Jonas Valanciunas, with Washington matching pace with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter each hitting a pair of buckets but the supporting cast being limited.
The game remained close in the 2nd and 3rd quarters as the Raptors matched every Wizards run with a counter-punch, getting big contributions from Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, who’s playmaking was critical off the bench beside Fred VanVleet. OG Anunoby scored 8 of his 12 points on the night in the second quarter, looking fully healthy to start this season and with his jump shot having been a focal point during the summer, he looked a much improved shooter against Washington.
While Valanciunas, Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby and CJ Miles each finished in double digits for scoring, and Norman Powell had a team high +20 on the night and gave the Raptors some good minutes, this game was about Kyle Lowry in the end. The Raptors All-Star point guard took over in the fourth quarter at both ends of the floor, taking his fourth charge of the season and hitting several big shots to ensure that the game stayed just out of reach for Washington. He’s had his best start to a season yet this year, and after great games in the first two where he deferred more to Leonard, with Kawhi out tonight it was Lowry’s turn to dominate. Finishing with 28 points and 12 assists on 10-21 shooting, Lowry has been one of the best players in the league during the first week of the season, and this was what Toronto needed as the team began to run out of steam late in the game.
It looked like it might yet turn around in favor of Washington late as they put together a run in the final minutes, but Lowry hit some big shots and a broken play leading to a baseline out of bounds led to Fred VanVleet recovering an errant pass and hitting a clutch jump shot as the shot clock ran out with 14 seconds remaining, followed by Fred hitting two free throws which put the game away for the Raptors.
The bench still hasn’t quite found their groove, with the offense hard to find at times without Lowry or Valanciunas on the floor, once again, but that might come back once Wright is healthy again, and this is a different bench group still finding their groove.
If the lesson against the Celtics was how dominant the Raptors can be, and how this team can pull away late against elite opposition, the lesson of this game was how resilient this year’s Raptors are, and how deep they are. This was clearly a tired Raptors team, and this early in the season playing a compressed schedule can be tough, with guys still re-adjusting to the pace of the regular season, and the Raptors went up against a more rested, playoff capable opponent and came out on top to start the season 3-0. Not only is this important in terms of getting Leonard rest tonight, but the payoff will be felt later in the season as well, when the buffer provided by these victories will allow them more rest down the line.