My new puppy Millie likes to wrestle at the dog park. She already weighs 50 pounds at five months old, which means she’s going to be large. She’s still weak, due to being a puppy. And she thinks she’s the size of a teacup, besides. So when she wrestles with other dogs, she’s afraid of shepherds and rotties and the like. She likes to pick on other puppies, or beagles, all of whom she can trample with ease. Yet she still loses to them. Then the other day, a 70-pound collie mutt insisted, and they roughhoused for 20 minutes. Millie took a few rounds, but she spent most of the time fighting from underneath. But then a funny thing happened in the following days. When she went back to the beagles, Millie dominated. She knew her size.
All this to say: it’s good to get the easy ones.
The Toronto Raptors won going away against the Washington Wizards. They spent the entire game with a lead somewhere between five and 15 points, and they only tapped the gas whenever the Wizards seemed poise to make a run. It was, as far as single games go, the regular season equivalent of a gentleman’s sweep.
There were plenty of positives. Norman Powell continued his volcanic return to form marking this redemptive second half of Toronto’s early season. He scored 28 points, and they came — like Fred VanVleet said after his 54-point game — with respect to the Wizards, with ease. His triples dropped like layups, and his layups like free throws. He opened the game attacking the rim with hop-steps, rip-throughs, and floaters, scoring nine points in the first six minutes of the game. He dished assists, picked steals on defense, and was generally Toronto’s most consistent scoring puncher.
Powell wasn’t alone; they did score 137 points, after all. Pascal Siakam continued his revival, as he scored 26 points and even hit three 3s. He passed extremely well, even showing off with a 1-on-many drive in transition that saw him euro-step through the lane before whipping a pass to an open Powell in the corner. His ability to occupy multiple defenders and make an on-time pass that extends advantages should be Toronto’s best method of prying open space against good defenses. Washington decidedly does not have a good defense, and Toronto didn’t need Siakam for long stretches. But during those offensive lulls against Washington, when the lead drifted to five points, Siakam was more often than not off the floor. His presence equaling offensive consistency is as good a portend as possibly could be taken from a game like this. Siakam finished with a plus-27 in the plus-minus column, tied for most in the game.
You know who he was tied with? Fred VanVleet. I’ve been vocal about this in the past, but VanVleet remains Toronto’s steadiest presence on the court in this early season, and the team’s best chance at an All-Star berth (if they even want one). As Powell, then Siakam, then Kyle Lowry got hot for Toronto, VanVleet was quiet in this one, finishing with only 14 points, but he led the team in assists, with seven. Even more important, he was fantastic on the defensive end, acting as a key cog in holding Bradley Beal — who averaged 33 points coming into the game — to only 24. That VanVleet can act as a steady point guard, giving up the ball, and allowing others the space to thrive, is a nice step forward for him as an on-ball presence.
Furthermore, Toronto didn’t bark during their win. There was a technical foul called during the game, but for once it didn’t come against the Raptors. The Raptors didn’t allow their overall impressions of the refereeing to alter their play. At one point in the fourth quarter, Russell Westbrook turned and chatted with the referees during live play, and Powell calmly jogged to the other end and drilled an uncontested triple. Too often the Raptors have been recipients of such casual small defeats. Not in this one. And after the game, Nick Nurse made peace with the referees.
“That starts with me,” said Nurse of the team’s proclivity to earn technical fouls. “So, I think that there’s only so much energy to go around and you’ve got to try to direct it in a positive way. And they’ve got a tough job, especially this year we can talk about how tough it is on everybody this year. I can’t imagine how tough it is on them and we’ve got to do a better job of working in unison with them.”
Fittingly, this one was all professionalism, if delivered at 60 percent effort. Still, 60 percent effort was all it took to stay comfortable for 48 minutes.
Millie is starting to wrestle with shepherds, now. She has fun, even if she doesn’t fare well in the win column. At least she’s trying. That’s kind of where the Raptors are at now. They are — and have been for several weeks, now — a good team. Good teams beat bad ones, just like big dogs topple small ones. And the Wizards are surely a bad team. Nothing says ‘the Raptors are back’ like the Raptors butchering the Wizards with ease on a casual Wednesday night. Perhaps, like Millie, once they find their footing and grow into themselves they’ll topple the big dogs in time.