Toronto’s six minutes of excellence meant more than its win over the Wizards

For a short stretch, Toronto flew the perfect distance from the sun. The offense looked fantastic.

It begins with a Fred VanVleet triple on a miscommunication, a nothing play that ripples into more. It’s not his most important of the game — he hits two overtime bombs to seal the win — but it starts to grease the wheels. It’s VanVleet’s second triple of the game, which is significant after shooting so poorly in the first Washington Wizards matchup. Then a few missed triples from O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, followed by Scottie Barnes throwing a no-look pass to Jakob Poeltl for the layup.

VanVleet creates free throws for Poeltl in the pick and roll. He’s patient and can reach the paint at will. Siakam dusts his defender in isolation and throws in the floater off glass. It’s coming in droves now.

Siakam drives and turns a would-be floater into a laser-beam pass to Poeltl behind him in the dunker spot for an easy push shot.

Then the piece de resistance, the piece of offense that the Kevin Durant Warriors would have been proud to claim as their own. VanVleet runs a pick and roll with Poeltl, and the Wizards blitz him. he lofts the short roll pass to Poeltl, who drives and whips a spinning, around-the-head pass to Anunoby on the weak side. Anunoby drives and bounces a pass to Barnes in the dunker for a dunk. There’s an offensive boom in the NBA right now, with the league-wide offensive rating of 114.4 absolutely smoking the former record of 112.3, set in 2020-21. The top seven all-time marks were all set in the last seven seasons. Offense is exploding. You wouldn’t normally know it if you only watch the Raptors, but you might have an inkling from that one play.

The shots are coming with ease, now. Toronto’s offense is proactive, creating shots at will. Anunoby drives again and shovels an underhand rocket to Poeltl for another layup. Siakam wafts a pass to Barnes in transition for the and-1 layup.

Back in the half court, Siakam takes a pick while VanVleet receives a flare screen on the weak side. VanVleet drills the triple as soon as he touches it.

By the time the dust settles, the Raptors had scored 20 points in six minutes of play. It had been a slog scoring the basketball before the run, and it was mostly a slog scoring the basketball after it. But for a brief moment in time, the Raptors flew pure and true. The Raptors are no stranger to winning (or losing) basketball games in short stretches of game time.

VanVleet was the floor general, the pick-and-roll maestro and sharpshooter who powered the offense with lithium batteries. One of the components of the league-wide offensive golden age is the extraordinary point guard, and though VanVleet hasn’t had a poor season by any stretch of the imagination, he isn’t powering Toronto to a top-five offense. But against the Wizards, he was deadly. (He even locked up Beal in overtime, defending him without help, staying attached to his hip, and forcing wayward midrange pull-ups.)

Anunoby was the second-side driver. He drove with confidence and extended advantages into layups for teammates with heady passes. Too rarely has he filled that role this season. Even against the Wizards, those were his only two assists of the night, and he shot 2-of-11 from the field. (His defensive performance was immaculate.) But for the short stretch that he was able to make it work as a secondary attacker, Toronto’s offense blazed.

Barnes was a liquid sword, filling in whatever crack the Raptors needed. He was the play finisher in the dunker spot when required, the lane filler in transition, the passer and attacker. Barnes has so many skills and abilities that he can mimic Kyle Lowry — not in aesthetic, but perhaps in approach. He can fill whatever gap is necessary. Like Anunoby, he had his down moments against the Wizards, but his ability to shapeshift into whatever the Raptors need is perhaps a foreshadowing of his flavour of stardom in the future.

Siakam was the hammer, the star wing scorer. He scored in isolation and created in transition. Of course, he has been in a slump recently, and he hasn’t been consistently able to beat his primary defender, handle blitzes or doubles, or use a tight handle to navigate his usual tight corridors. That includes this game, in which he finished with only 10 field goal attempts and four turnovers. The 10 field goal attempts are his lowest of the season (and came in a game with overtime, to boot). He hasn’t been as dominant as Toronto has needed. But within Toronto’s six minutes of offensive purity, he was able to pick his spots, dominate when he saw openings, and didn’t need to force anything.

Poeltl was the anvil. He was the finisher around the rim, the huge target all his teammates sought with clever passes off the bounce. He finished 6-of-8 from the field against the Wizards, which is right in line with his preposterous 76.1 percent (!) from the field as a Raptor. Over a full season, no player in NBA history has ever averaged 15 points per game while shooting 75 percent or better from the field. Poeltl is doing both since joining the Raptors. Poeltl is a play finisher, full stop, on the offensive end, and the Raptors have desperately needed one. But he does so much more. His screening opens space that VanVleet especially has navigated. His rebounding is crucial. His defense is almost keeping Toronto’s boat afloat since he joined the team. He has been a near-perfect addition. And, of course, during Toronto’s run of excellence, he was front and center.

They of course didn’t win the Wizards game during their run of genius, diverse, and dynamic play. The game was tied when it began, and they were up just seven points after VanVleet’s triple. (Bradley Beal answered with a triple on the ensuing possession anyway.) Toronto’s defense was not sufficient during the stretch, with Delon Wright hitting three triples, Beal one of his own, and Daniel Gafford collecting a dunk. The Raptors would need overtime to beat the Wizards, and plenty of runs for both teams occurred between the start of the third quarter and the final buzzer. Gary Trent jr.’s offense, Precious Achiuwa’s defense, and Chris Boucher’s both were all needed off the bench.

But the starters’ six-minute stretch of basketball shone a bright, soothing light on the Raptors. They looked like a normal basketball team for a not insignificant stretch of time. The offense scored laughing all the way to the bank. The players filled their roles with perfection. And for just a few minutes, the vision for the Raptors’ core perfectly matched the reality on the court.

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