Twelve or so minutes of concerted effort was all the Raptors needed to beat the pathetic and disjointed Wizards by 18 on Friday night. As has been the case with many of the Raptors’ recent performances, their 16th win of the season was an incomplete one, featuring the usual defensive swoons and a coughed-up double-digit lead.
As it happens, Washington offers plenty of room of error.
Toronto started refreshingly hot. Entering Friday’s action, the Raptors sat 27th in three-point percentage in the month of November, bumping shoulders with offensive juggernauts like Utah, Atlanta and Chicago. Positively bricktacular stuff.
For head coach Nick Nurse, it was just a matter of time before the results started matching with the process he was seeing from his team.
“I came out of the Orlando game thinking ... a struggle offensively, it just felt uncomfortable and I say this a lot, it’s never as good or bad as it feels until I watch the game film and I watched the game film and we started the third quarter off with I think five (wide open threes), and none of them go ... and so I was like, “OK, I gotta calm down about the struggling offense thing here a little bit.”
“We are shooting it not very well, and I’m crossing my fingers and rubbing my rabbit’s foot, and hopefully some of those shots start going in”
Nurse’s superstitious wish-casting apparently worked. In the opening frame against Washington’s languid, 29th-ranked defense, Toronto started to cook, hitting one more three in the frame than the Wizards have wins in 2018-19, to a tune of better than 50 percent. Fred VanVleet — perhaps the chilliest of Toronto’s typically reliable gunners — canned his first two attempts out of the gate, and had himself nine points and three triples a minute into the second quarter. It was a sharpness we haven’t seen from VanVleet since the first couple weeks of the year, before his toe injury popped up. His 13-points, four-rebound, seven-assist night on 4-of-7 shooting felt decidedly more Fred-like than anything he’d put forth since returning from the sidelines.
It wasn’t just VanVleet who helped prop up Toronto’s long distance attack. OG Anunoby, to the pleasant surprise of Nurse, chipped in some needed long-range offense as well, going 3-of-5 from deep, taped up shooting wrist be damned.
“I was happy,” said Nurse. “He had a right wrist injury, right. I think he made his first three he took, maybe his first two. That was the first thing I said I was like ”jeez,” he checks in the game and hits a three right off the bat, which you know, that’s probably the thing you’re gonna check on the most.”
The abundance of triples helped the Raptors claim a 17-point lead at one point in the second quarter. But as has become a trend, that lead evaporated quickly as Toronto’s commitment to giving a shit did the same. Forgive them for feeling secure against the team that can’t go a week without leaking how much they hate each other.
By Game 80 it might morph into a sincere a concern, but at the quarter mark of the season it’s almost admirable how few minutes the Raptors need to actually try for in a given game to pull out a win. After a holding 70-62 lead at the half, Toronto gave up a quick 9-0 run to Washington. During the timeout you could almost hear John Wall announcing the Wizards’ arrival in the East contender conversation.
The Raptors still won the third quarter by six.
“It’s a little frustrating,” said Nurse of the team’s growing knack for turning blowouts into inconveniently close contests. “I think we played some really dominant basketball for stretches, and again it’s streaky a bit.
“We wanna try to extend our consistent play and extend that out longer, but the times when we’re not playing that well, that can’t be so underneath average ... you’re not gonna play great for 48 minutes even though we’re trying to stretch it out to that, but we gotta start playing less streaky.”
If you’re looking for explanations for the Raptors’ inability to string more than a few minutes of ass-kicking together, you might look to the constantly changing complexion of the rotation, as injuries and a cluster of scheduled rest days for Kawhi Leonard have turned the Raptors bench into a speed-dating convention. As soon as one collection of guys seems to connect, the combos get shaken up by an awkward fall or untimely back-to-back.
Leonard may be the most affected player of all by the constant stop-and-start. Even on nights like Friday, when he dropped 27 points and grabbed 10 boards on 12-of-22 shooting, you can still see the flecks of rust being dusted off.
“12-for-22, and I bet you that could have really easily been a 16 or 17-for-22,” said Nurse of Leonard’s offensive showing. “He had a couple point-blank little turn-around four or five-footers that just in-and-outed on him.”
“There’s gonna be a night when we’re in here talking about his 19-for-22 here in the future.”
Something that might help Leonard reach that level of peak robotic efficiency is the schedule. Friday’s game was the first of a ten-game stretch for the Raptors of one day on, one day off on the schedule. Leonard thinks that kind that repetition will help both him and the team.
“I feel like it’s gonna be good for us, just so we can get a rhythm with playing every other day. And I think this is a time we can gel as a team,” Leonard said after the game.
With Anunoby and C.J. Miles back, and Leonard presumably on track to play in every one of the games between now and the next back-to-back in mid-December, the Raptors are set up to attain those prolonged stretches of dominance Nurse and the angstier segment of the fan base have thirsted for recently.
If they can sleepwalk to 18-point wins in their current state, I shudder to think what Toronto might do to the league’s most depressing team when they visit Washington on January 13 after two months of fine-tuning.