Even when the Raptors 905 were up 20 points in the third quarter against the Maine Red Claws, victory was not guaranteed.
In their two previous games, the 905 had blown double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. Against the Stockton Kings, the 905 ended up losing 107-104. Taking on the Westchester Knicks resulted in a triple-overtime thriller, where the 905 survived 126-124.
Saturday’s contest versus the Red Claws saw the 905 squeak out another close game 116-109. Maine brought it back to within one point late in the 4th quarter. With less than a minute to go, Matt Morgan’s speedy layup while falling to the hardwood sealed the 905 win.
Team Defense: The Raptors 905 knew the contest against the Maine Red Claws presented challenges. For starters, 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall is a key piece on the team. His size and length make it difficult for opposing teams to post up and to get to the rim.
With a full roster, 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela uses Duane Notice as the primary player to defend Fall. Given Notice’s absence due to playing for Team Canada at FIBA AmeriCup, Mahlalela decided to switch up the assignments on the Red Claws big man.
The surprising match-up that benefited the 905 was putting Justin Reyes on Fall. The 905 guard/small forward showed his fervent energy and intensity off the bench. Reyes’ six rebounds highlight the hustle he brought in playing lock-down defense.
One play when Fall was on the floor in the third quarter, Reyes fought for a loose ball with the Red Claws center, coming up with it and scoring a layup.
Reyes’ defense permeated across the entire team. While the 905 did give up 16 points to Fall and 30 to Yante Maten, the defense was not giving the Red Claws players a lot of space to pass or shoot the ball. This resulted in a lot of contested shots, hence why the Red Claws shot 40 percent from the field and 19 percent from three.
Oshae Brissett: Henry Ellenson may have put up 28 points. Devin Robinson secured a double-double 24 points and 14 rebounds.
But Oshae Brissett raised his level of play for the 905 on Saturday, putting together one of his most complete games of the season. The 905 small forward led the team in scoring with a double-double 29 points and 10 rebounds.
One of the areas that Brissett has focused on improving is his shot. Starting the season, the Canadian power forward was known for his athleticism and rebounding ability. With time spent with the Raptors organization, along with countless hours in the gym, Brissett has exhibited confidence with his jump shot.
Against the Red Claws, the 905 forward converted 5-of-7 three-pointers. Brissett was locked-in on the defensive side, penetrating in the paint to force turnovers. The tough defense may not always appear on the stat sheet, but it allowed Brissett to open the court in transition to create scoring opportunities.
Closing Games: When the 4th quarter arrives for the 905, the team has underachieved.
Performing well below their expectations that opposing teams are starting to believe that any deficit against the 905 can be overcome.
Over the last three games, the 905 is averaging 22.3 points in the 4th quarter. Against the Red Claws, the 905 players were sloppy with the basketball and not converting their shots. This allowed Maine to force turnovers and have success in transition, leading to easy baskets.
While it is a small sample size, it is concerning at this point in the season that the 905 is struggling to close games out. The Raptors players can score, keeping the pressure on offensively and defensively.
As Mahlalela said during his post-game scrum, rediscovering how to close out tight games is vital. The 905 have lost their fair share of single-digit deficits this season. It also doesn’t help when the 905’s depth of scoring is compromised, with Tyler Ennis and Paul Watson Jr. out of Saturday’s game with injuries.
While the 905 did come away victorious, the team needs to buy into playing a full, 48-minute game. So the evaporation of double-digit leads does not become a regular phenomenon.
The Raptors 905’s next game is Tuesday, February 25th as the 905 take on the 18-19 Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
With the 905’s 17th win of the season on Saturday, the team is three games back of Capital City Go-Go for the eastern conference’s sixth and final playoff spot.
As the march towards the playoffs continues, Mahlalela is well aware of the importance of undergoing the process “one day at a time.”
It is now up to the 905 players to continue to buy into this mantra if they want to increase their chances of making the playoffs.