For fans of this Raptors team, the pendulum of confidence must be swinging wildly.
For most of the season now, Toronto has looked tremendous in blowout wins, yet frustratingly incoherent in closer games. The clutch questions are out there and hanging over this team. Truthfully, save a few aberrations, they haven’t done much to silence the critics.
So the pendulum swings — some nights we dream about the one-seed, and others we kick ourselves for believing such things in the first place.
Which is the real Raptors team? The reality comes somewhere in the middle, but tonight was another night of pivotal misses in critical moments. The Wizards beat the Raptors 122-119 in D.C., with two missed Kyle Lowry free throws and two missed Serge Ibaka threes in the last two minutes standing out as the tipping point.
The win gets Washington a bit closer to the four-seed at 29-22, while the Raptors drop to 34-16.
In the first quarter, the Raptors’ two big men established themselves early. Serge Ibaka had ten in the quarter, and Jonas Valanciunas dropped a three to get Toronto off to an early lead. OG Anunoby was helpful too, as DeMar DeRozan diced the Wizards defense and set him up for three open triples.
In the second, though, the Raptors’ momentum ground to a halt. With Fred VanVleet doing his dad thing and C.J. Miles missing another game with knee soreness, Toronto’s bench was noticeably thin. Lorenzo Brown played 11 minutes as a second guard, and was unwilling to shoot when looks were available to him. This allowed an unusually feisty Wizards bench to be super aggressive on Delon Wright in the paint. Wright would struggle, finishing 0-for-4.
But look at what Norm pulled off! Maybe the most impressive part of this Raptors game was the continued success of Norman Powell, who got 26 minutes and looked energetic on both ends. He made 2-of-3 from beyond the arc to get to eight points, adding a couple assists, and made a decent attempt at keeping the bench afloat.
He also hounded Bradley Beal on the other end, getting uber-aggressive with the on-ball looks and coming off screens. While Beal still managed 27 points, six rebounds, and six assists, it was nice to see Powell put in the effort.
The third quarter bench minutes looked worse than the second, as the Raptors turned a 62-55 halftime lead into an 88-87 deficit after three. Ultimately, this would come down to the starters, and execution in the clutch.
Sphincters were sufficiently tight, but Kyle Lowry did his part to fuel the Raptors. He had a tremendous fourth quarter, and was the best player for Toronto. It was prototypical Lowry — diving on the floor, taking elbows in the chops, grinding out threes and making Tomas Satoransky look foolish.
He would finish with 29 points on 19 shots, adding five rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block.
But then... the last two minutes came, and the cloud over this team came out again. On two possessions, guard penetration set up Ibaka — 7-for-9 coming into the clutch — for wide open threes that he just missed.
Lowry too was open for a potential game-tying three, which he missed. It was like KLOE without the finishing gene. He had a three-point play opportunity with under a minute to bring the Raptors within one. He bricked the free throw. On a miracle steal with under ten seconds, he was sent back to the line with a chance to tie the game. Bricked one of two.
Some nights, it feels like the Raptors can’t get out of their own way. The stats aren’t desperate, but they are disappointing — Toronto is now 13-13 in games that are decided by five points or less in the last five minutes. That .500 win percentage puts them 15th in the league, below teams like Phoenix, Indiana, and... yes, Washington. The advanced numbers tell a more damning story: the Raptors are 26th in clutch effective field goal percentage, 23rd in clutch net rating.
Some nights it looks like poor play-calling. Other nights, like this one, it just comes down to making shots. The Raptors came in thin tonight, and needed some execution to win a tough game. They missed four high-percentage looks.
But hey, that’s basketball sometimes. It can be very dumb. Toronto gets a quick turnaround to correct it, with Portland coming into the Air Canada Centre on Thursday.
Some other observations from this game:
- In his absence, you could see how Fred VanVleet shapes the bench’s production. By being a consistent three-point threat over the last few weeks, VanVleet forces defenses to be a bit more honest. Lorenzo Brown does not, and the Wizards were well-coached enough to pack it in on the four guys around him — Delon, Norm, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam — who all thrive at the rim. I wonder if Alfonzo McKinnie would’ve been more effective tonight.
- Up and down night for DeMar DeRozan, who needed 17 shots for his 23 points. The assists early in the game were nice, but the three-point shot has cooled for him. He missed all three of his looks tonight, and none were particularly close. Otto Porter Jr. still has the chops to make DeMar’s life difficult, even if DeRozan got over on him a few times.
- Hopefully the motivation of allowing double digit scoring for Mike Scott (14) and Ian Mahinmi (10) is enough to get an automatic win tomorrow night, am I right?