They say wounded animals fight the grizzliest, and the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, missing 12 players to injury between the two teams, did not disappoint. The game was sloppy and up-tempo enough to be a live-action remake of the fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and that grizzly bear. Though it looked like Toronto would win easily throughout the first half, the Wizards learned to play defense in the second, and the Raptors’ lineup of Kyle Lowry and the bench was ineffective in maintaining the lead. Toronto’s eventual 122-118 win was a relief.
Washington’s 8-19 record and overall creaky defense does not invalidate Toronto’s win. Considering Toronto’s injury circumstances, with Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and Marc Gasol out, as well as Fred VanVleet returning to his first game action in over a week, the win was impressive. Over the next several weeks, any win will be a good win for Toronto.
Toronto played the part of the bear quite well in the first half, mauling the Wizards with relative ease. Washington put up little resistance. Outside of the always deadly Bradley Beal, they had more of the miserable cluelessness of Ben Affleck than the smoldering intensity of Leo. Toronto didn’t need to work at all to manufacture good shots. They put up 40 points in the first quarter.
The Raptors started by running the type of standard offense that they’ll greatly need in the coming weeks: the pick-and-roll. With Siakam on the shelf, the ecological diversity of Toronto’s offense will wither, but Toronto at least has two good-to-great manipulators in Lowry and VanVleet who can create efficient shots out of the pick-and-roll. So the Raptors went back to the basics. Lowry splashed a triple coming over a ball screen from Serge Ibaka. VanVleet did the same on the next possession, but he took an extra dribble as his defender chased him from behind, and then drilled it from the mid-range.
Lowry was aggressive throughout the night, attacking the paint like it refused to give him a continuation call, and goading Wizards defenders into fouls. He finished with 26 points and nine assists. While VanVleet’s shot was off on his return, finishing only six-of-18 from the field, he was good defensively, and he finished with a near triple-double of 18 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists.
“I probably should have hunted [the triple-double] a little more,” laughed VanVleet. “I was just trying to make it through the game.”
Toronto quickly spread the love, realizing that they could run secondary and even tertiary stuff and still expect to create good shots. Such is the poverty of the Wizards’ defensive focus and ability. OG Anunoby flexed his drive-and-dish game, as well as his post-up moves. At one point, he took his defender to the post, spun to the rim, pump-faked the helper into the air, and finished with a tidy layup on the other side. Anunoby has been strong and effective all year, but the fluidity and grace marked that move as special.
“I think that’s probably one of those things that at some of those plays, he just needs to get some more reps for balance,” said Nick Nurse in explaining how Anunoby can make that fluidity a more common part of his game. “You see some of the ones where he goes in there and just doesn’t quite get to his base, right, or gets off stride or something. I think that you either got to get to two feet so you get on balance, or you have to go real slow in that Euro and stay on balance as you’re going from one foot to the other.”
“He works on it, though. I think everyone can see the improvement. We saw a couple of, little bit off-balance drives from him tonight, but over the course of the last four, five games, we’ve seen a lot of really good, straight-line drive finishes from him on each side of the basket.”
Expect a whole lot more of Anunoby’s aggressive drives and post-ups in coming weeks. Toronto will lean on him to create in the paint as long as Siakam is injured.
Pat McCaw, too, was aggressive and looked to score early, especially when he had the diminutive Isaiah Thomas guarding him. At one point, he isolated in the post against Thomas, and though it was ineffective and ugly, it was still good to see a Raptor looking to extend his in-game repertoire in a low-leverage moment.
Serge Ibaka was perhaps the brightest spot on the offensive end for Toronto. He drilled his jumpers, dunked the ball on cuts, chased offensive rebounds, and set bone-crunching screens to free his guards. He finished with 23 points on only 10 shots, and he added 10 rebounds and three blocks for good measure. He was probably Toronto’s best player in this one. At one point, he received the ball on the short roll and fired a pass in traffic to Anunoby in the corner. When Anunoby missed, Ibaka hunted the rebound and free throws, displaying the brain and brawn, beauty and beast, necessary in any star big man’s game.
Maybe the lone question mark for Toronto was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Perhaps benched last week for stepping outside of his role, Hollis-Jefferson tried to extend his game a little too much. He made a triple — good! — and followed that up by immediately isolating from the corner for a mid-range jumper — bad — and hunting another triple, this time less open — bad! He was better in the second half, at least, sticking more religiously to his offensive roles of screening, cutting, and rebounding.
Toronto’s defensive energy was even more impressive than its offensive performance, at least early. VanVleet and McCaw did great jobs on Bradley Beal, at least making him work for every jumper. Nurse was especially happy with McCaw’s defense on Beal, though the latter finished with 37 points. He got some of his points more easily when Malcolm Miller guarded him, and he got some of his points in rotation situations. Toronto rotated well in scramble situations, which has been a problem without Gasol on the floor to direct traffic. Beal was so good that it really didn’t matter who was guarding him.
Most impressive, though, was Ibaka’s performance. He held his defensive positioning well, sought huge blocks, and cleaned the defensive glass. Ibaka was playing unbelievable basketball before his injury, and after a short spell of ineffective play afterwards, he is now back to his absolute peak.
Yes, the Wizards are undermanned, and Washington’s David Bertans was cold, and they still put up 118. Bradley Beal is that good, so Toronto shouldn’t feel too bad about that one. Yes, the Wizards fought back into the game. Toronto still put them away in the end. Yes, Toronto couldn’t find a consistently solid lineup beyond their starters. They’ll get there, especially as VanVleet gets his shot back. None of that is as important as the result. The Raptors have room to improve, too. Their defense will tighten as players learn their new rotations. VanVleet’s shot falling will provide an important offensive weapon. For one night, at least, what they did was enough.
Toronto won a slugfest. It was inordinately ugly, but sometimes that’s more fun. Toronto and Washington fought like two embittered, exhausted animals for much of the night. Until reinforcements come, that’s probably how winning Raptors basketball is going to look.