March is a long month. The weather warms enough to make everything nasty, but not enough to melt the snow. You’re guaranteed at least two blizzards for no reason. There’s always a patch of slush dirt on the back of your pants. It’s winter, but it’s not. Spring, but it isn’t. March is a slog.
As a Raptors fan, basketball probably won’t help the mood much. The reality is, Toronto is well past their toughest stretches of basketball. This month’s schedule is wide open, with only a few games against elite opponents (Houston next week, OKC on the 18th, Cleveland on the 21st). There’s a real temptation to just start sleepwalking, and maybe that’s part of the reason the team has looked a bit sloppy out of the All-Star break.
Today, though, there’s a medium-sized test. The Raptors are headed into Washington to start March, facing a 36-26 team that beat them to start February, a 122-119 bummer of a performance.
Can the Raptors respond after a fresh flip of the monthly calendar? We shall see — here are the game details.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 8 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Washington - Tomas Satoransky, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat
Toronto - OG Anunoby (doubtful - ankle)
Washington - John Wall (knee)
If there’s one thing that’s obviously missing since the All-Star break, it’s a level of defensive toughness. The Raptors are fresh off giving up 104 points to the Magic, and while Orlando seemed a little infallible shooting 43% from deep, Toronto didn’t exactly push themselves to turn the tide until late. The Raptors also gave up 122 (in overtime) to Milwaukee a couple games ago.
This is where Toronto has to get into good habits. We’ve seen this roster, or pieces of it, dog it through easy parts of the schedule in years past. While it’s true that this year, they have the bench talent to win in spite of that, it’d be ideal if they didn’t rely on bad habits. With the Wizards, they might not have the luxury. The last meeting saw their bench get outplayed by Mike Scott and Ian Mahinmi. Bradley Beal went for 27 points, and all Washington’s starters were in double digits.
This Wizards team isn’t overwhelmingly talented, but they have a record of jumping down the Raptors’ throats. Toronto needs to bring some toughness, and get in the habit of doing that on the regular.
End of Game Execution
The Raptors’ players and coaching staff have been extra vocal over the last two weeks about cleaning up the end of games. They recognize the issues: 15-13 in games decided by five points or less in the last five minutes, 23rd in the league in effective field goal percentage in those games, and an offensive rating of 99.4.
In fact, the last meeting with the Wizards was one of the prime examples of poor late game execution. As you may remember, Serge Ibaka missed two wide open three-pointers, Kyle Lowry bricked a couple free throws, and missed a three — all in the last two minutes.
With the schedule being what it is, there simply won’t be a lot of opportunities for real-game, close finish scenarios. The Raptors are too dang good against bad teams, and there’s only a handful of tests over the last six weeks of the regular season. While Washington is also a blowout candidate, they play the Raptors tough (have I said that already?) and may present a real world opportunity.
If this game is anything like the last one, hopefully we get a little more ball movement on those late possessions, and some execution that ends in points.
New Focus on Norm
Unfortunately for the Raptors, it looks like they’ll be without OG Anunoby, who’s doubtful after re-aggravating an ankle injury in the Orlando game on Wednesday. In games that Anunoby has missed so far this season, that means a much bigger role for Norman Powell — he typically jumps to about 25 minutes in games that OG misses. In the last four, he’s played 6:45, 9:38, 8:42, and 10:58.
Norm is still struggling in a major way. While he hasn’t been able to expect minutes to score, his defense has also dropped off in the All-Star break. Again, it’s interesting that one of his last effective games was the Washington matchup — 3-for-4 shooting in 25 minutes. He hawked Bradley Beal in the minutes Anunoby sat, and was a little quicker in keeping up with the All-Star guard around screens and up high.
Still, Powell has scored in double digits just twice since December 17, and his role with the team has almost completely diminished. At Capital One Arena, Toronto will see what he can give them at the starting small forward. With more responsibility, they’ll need him to respond.