Even though the Toronto Raptors went in to last night’s game playing their best ball of the season, the Washington Wizards are no easy matchup; they’d won 10 of 14 heading into last night. But the Raptors overcame a slow start and toughed it out, 102-95.
A Few Concerns
That was a quality road win over a good opponent, one that’s given the Raptors trouble this year, so I don’t want to harp on the negatives too much, but a few things definitely stood out:
A slow start: This one is definitely disconcerting to Raptors fans who’ve watched the Raptors come out flat in the first game of every playoff series. Last night the Wizards jumped out to a 14-point lead early as the Raptors looked lost on offense, and lazy on defense; Washington looked jacked up for the game and Toronto looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. The good news is, this Raptors team is a lot deeper, and has more lineup flexibility to help them snap out of mini-funks, as happened last night.
Defensive traps: Again, harkening back to playoffs’ past, the Milwaukee Bucks were able to disrupt the Raptors’ offense and force turnovers by trapping ballhandlers, and the Wizards broke out the same D on a few occasions last night. It still completely flummoxes the Raptors, and I hope the coaching staff works on it over the next month and a half.
Rebounding: Probably the biggest concern of all, the Wizards outrebounded Toronto 47-34, had 15 offensive boards and had 18 second-chance points. The Raptors simply have to do a better job on the glass. Jakob Poeltl, much as I love the kid, needs some box out lessons; at least twice Ian Mahinmi simply walked around him to grab a rebound. Kyle Lowry led the team with 7 rebounds; no one else had more than 4! Yikes. This is the thing I think might seriously hurt them in the playoffs (especially if these two teams meet—Washington outrebounded Toronto by double-digits in 3 of their 4 meetings).
Free throw shooting: Raps went 20-32 from the line. This is the thing I am least worried about in the playoffs.
Quality Clutch Minutes
Last night’s final four minutes may have been the Raptors’ best “clutch performance” of the season. Here’s how it went down, with the Raptors up 1 (after an ill-advised Kyle Lowry technical) and 4:03 to go:
- Tomas Satoransky threw a pass into the stands
- DeMar DeRozan took the ball to the hoop (and was probably fouled) but on the ensuing inbounds, C.J. Miles put home a tough bucket in the lane for 2
- Poeltl blocked Marcin Gortat at the rim
- Miles buried a ridiculous corner 3 off a Fred VanVleet pass
- Bradley Beal missed a fadeaway over Poeltl
- Markieff Morris blocked a Kyle Lowry fadeaway 3-pointer
- Beal hit two FTs
- Kyle missed an open 3-pointer
- Beal turned it over
- DeRozan drained a long two over Morris
- Otto Porter Jr. missed a 3-pointer
- DeRozan took it strong to the hoop for a reverse layup
From there (other than a Porter 3-pointer) it was free throws and the Raps sealed it at the line.
That’s pretty solid! Offensively, there are still questionable shots: Lowry’s 3-pointer over Morris (Kyle should be able to take Morris into the lane) and DeMar’s long two (he nailed it, but no one else touched the ball and there was no movement, other than Poeltl stepping up to screen and get the switch). But on the other plays the Raptors worked the offense to get open looks, pushed the ball off of their D, and got things going to the hoop.
Defensively, that’s about as well as you can play it. The Raptors forced turnovers, forced long midrange shots, and even Beal’s FTs came on a block-charge call that could have gone the other way. And that’s with a rather unexpected closing lineup.
So How About That Closing Lineup?
If you didn’t watch last night’s game and simply heard “The Raps played great down the stretch!” you’d probably be pretty surprised if I told you who closed it out: A Lowry-DeRozan-Poeltl-VanVleet-Miles small-ball lineup.
As I mentioned earlier, the great thing about the Raptors’ depth this year is that—in addition to a stellar 5-man bench unit—it allows them to play with different lineups when needed, to find good matchups, to replace injured or foul-troubled players, or to stick with a hot hand. We saw it Wednesday in Orlando, with a similar lineup (with Pascal Siakam in place of Miles).
Last night’s closing lineup was awfully small, and featured two less-than optimal defenders in Miles and DeRozan.
Oh, and they also hadn’t played a single minute together as a unit all season.
It was a gamble, especially against a superior rebounding team, but it worked last night.
C.J. Saved ‘Em
Been a while since we had a “C.J. Miles is unconscious” game, and it came last night at exactly the right time. With everyone else laying bricks from downtown (non-Miles Raptors: 4-of-24), Miles caught fire, shooting 6-of-9; but it wasn’t just the percentage, it was the timing (every time the Raps needed it, basically, including three triples in the fourth quarter) and the location (from all over the floor, including that corner 3 noted above and two deep Steph Curry-esque bombs).
Do you know he’s shooting 47% on 6.4 attempts per game in the 10 games since he came back from his knee injury? That’s what we signed up for!
Miles also nailed the tough shot in the lane I mentioned earlier, and had a key rebound down the stretch as well.
With Norman Powell struggling and OG Anunoby hurt (and not exactly shooting the lights out) we may see more and more of Miles down the stretch.
A Tale of Two Bench Guys
Jonas Valanciunas got into early foul trouble, and although Poeltl was still the first big off the bench, Casey did sub in Lucas Nogueira for a stretch, and it was clear that Bebe was ready! He did all his usual Bebe things, disrupting passing lanes, altering shots, dishing out fine passes (sometimes to his detriment). On one second quarter Wizards possession, Bebe had two deflections and a block! (Sadly, while he was chasing the Wizards all over the place, none of his teammates had his back and—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the Raps gave up the offensive rebound.) He even scored on a 3-point play to complete the Raptors mini-comeback from 14 down.
Meanwhile, I fear Norman Powell flushed away another chance to prove his worth last night. He got the start in place of the injured Anunoby and you’d think it’d be an ideal matchup; all he had to do was not screw up on offense, and ratchet up the D (his calling card) on Bradley Beal.
Well, he gave up two open 3-pointers to Beal in the first three minutes, missed the only shot he took, and looked tentative and out of sorts the whole first quarter. Malcolm Miller took most of his minutes in the second.
In the third, Casey gave Norm another long run, and again, Norm showed, well, nothing: 7 minutes, no points, no shots, no assists, no rebounds, two fouls. (At least Beal only went 1-of-5)
He finished a team-low -16, shot 0-2, had one rebound and one assist in 17 minutes.
I love Powell, I’m rooting for him, I know he’s better than this. But if he can’t defend, and he can’t score, can he even be out there? I don’t know.
Couple shout-outs before we go: To Hubie Brown, calling this one on ESPN; Brown’s lost a step but it’s still lovely to hear his voice calling the game (and he handled “Nogueira,” “Poeltl” and “Anunoby” better than his partner Mark Jones!); to the Wizards organization, for inviting the gold-medal winning (and Canada-defeating) U.S. women’s hockey team to the game against Canada’s only NBA team; and finally to the traveling Raptors fans, whose “Let’s go Raptors” chants could be heard loud and clear on the ESPN broadcast. Kudos to you guys!