Raptors coach Dwane Casey knew what was going to happen. He knew his team was playing at home for the first time in two weeks. He knew there was a chance they’d be lethargic. He knew they could get out to a slow start. He knew, he knew, he knew.
“Today is about our energy level, our fight, our toughness, our mental toughness,” said Casey pre-game. “And fighting through the age old excuse of coming back home and thinking that home’s gonna take care of you, and it doesn’t unless you take care of it with fight, with energy, with all-out play.”
So then, we weren’t the only ones who saw this all coming.
The Raptors did indeed start their game against the Wizards — their first at home since October 21st — in sluggish fashion. The first quarter found them shooting 5-of-19 from the field (including 1-of-7 from three), with four turnovers chipped in for fun, while allowing the Wizards to largely get what they wanted (48 percent from the field, and 3-of-5 from three). Toronto never had the lead and by the end of the frame the score was 32-17. Somehow, it felt even worse: this Wizards team was playing without John Wall, and entered the ACC having lost four of its last five games.
As always in trying (or any other) times for the Raptors, the team would turn to Kyle Lowry. But after a quiet first quarter, Lowry got louder in the second; unfortunately, his volume was directed at one of the refs — who should have walked away, according to Casey — and after two quick techs at the 8-minute mark, the Raptors were Lowry-less. That’s right, he was ejected just like that. Lowry’s line for the night: 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 baby kissed.
Who did have fight for the Raptors then? It says a lot about the team’s first half that flu-ridden C.J. Miles appeared to be playing with the most urgency. The only other standout was Norman Powell, who led the team in scoring with 15 points at the half, while also doing what he could on defense. It’s no small thing — given how important Norm is to the Raps, and how rough his run has been of late — but it was not enough to give Toronto any semblance of coherence.
Then, naturally, we did get the run. Serge Ibaka woke from whatever coma spell he had been put under, canned a couple of threes, and started trying on D (his efforts included a block on Markieff Morris). The lead shrank to 11. Then Jonas Valanciunas, who may still be wandering the Bonneville Salt Flats, was mercifully subbed out of the game again, and the Raptors went to Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Lucas Nogueira. The energy — ah, the fight! — suddenly went up. Siakam grabbed a missed free throw for a putback, Anunoby bottled up Bradley Beal (who finished with 38 points, but still), and Bebe added another block on Morris. The lead shrank again, down to 7. Then it was time for Fred VanVleet.
The truth is, VanVleet hasn’t made much of an impact with the Raptors as of late. But with Toronto grasping for anything, and the Wizards guarding him with Tomas Satoransky, FVV made his move. He finished the third quarter with three delicious drives to the rim, and three much needed buckets. Much of the Raptors’ comeback in the second half was fuelled by FVV’s inspired play, which reached its fever pitch after a dump pass to Siakam led to another easy bucket. Timeout Washington, and look at Fred waving to the cheering crowd. The lead would shrink to three points midway through the fourth, and we were turned all the way up.
But then Ibaka and Valanciunas returned. Then VanVleet was subbed out for Delon Wright. Nogueira and Siakam weren’t heard from again. The rest of the starting lineup came on to close it out. To that point, only starters Norm and DeMar DeRozan (an understated 26 points) had had any positive effect on the game for the Raptors. So what happened? The Wizards went on a 12-2 run, and the game ended as a 107-96 loss for Toronto.
Afterwards Casey made a couple of curious statements in lieu of what we just watched. First it was: “We have to decide who we want to be,” he said. “Do we want to be an inconsistent team or a consistent fighting team?” And then there was: “Our starts have been horrendous.” And finally, one more: “I thought our young guys played their behinds off.”
Did it make sense to take out all of the young guys then because they may have been “winded”? Should it come as a surprise to watch Valanciunas struggle in the pick-and-roll against Marcin Gortat? Was Ibaka’s return to the game the best time to see if he was going to play with energy? It’s easier to argue here that we do in fact know exactly what kind of team the Raptors are. Casey should know. We do know. And maybe the Raptors should just lean into that idea more.