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Raptors rediscover themselves late, win Game 5 vs. the Wizards, 108-98

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DeMar DeRozan kept things going for the Raptors, but it was Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright that brought the win home in Game 5.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the fevered moment of the post-season when we have to address the matter head on. Yes, it’s time to discuss the JV Hive.

It’s been something of a running joke all year with the Raptors. Is Jonas Valanciunas even worth playing in this modern NBA, or is he in fact the lynchpin to everything the team is trying to do. Sometimes Jonas looks slow as molasses and clueless to everything outside of arm’s reach. Yet other times, he’s an all-consuming force. The JV Hive, to their credit, has never wavered: they believe their man Valanciunas is the man.

And as it turns out, in Game 5 of the Raptors vs. Wizards opening round series, a must-win for a Toronto team coming off a rough weekend in Washington, the Hive was right. The Raptors won the game 108-98, and it was largely due to the play of the big Lithuanian down the stretch. JV finished the game with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and a smile.

But let’s start back at the beginning. Once again the Raptors came out with something resembling a game plan. They were forcing the Wizards into relatively tough shots, and they were running their offense through Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The latter looked extremely locked in: DeMar had 13 points in the first frame, and with the rest of the squad (particularly Serge Ibaka) lagging behind on the offensive end, Toronto needed every point.

(Special credit to OG Anunoby though: he was a thunderous force on defense, making John Wall work for everything he got. When OG gets a more consistent offensive game, holy moley, look out.)

The second saw the return of Dwane Casey’s quest to patch over the absence of Fred VanVleet. Toronto tried the DeRozan and bench lineup, which didn’t really take. And then an all-bench combination with Norman Powell that couldn’t quite find any consistent magic. There’s something to be said for the Raptors bench’s defensive versatility — especially when Pascal Siakam can credibly defend Wall, Delon Wright can switch right over to Otto Porter Jr., and Norman Powell is dedicated to hounding guys. But when you factor in Jakob Poeltl and C.J. Miles (the lineup’s only real shooter, and he’s been struggling), the lineup also can’t score. The Raptors went into the half up one.

The third was more of the same. DeRozan (with a side of Lowry) continued to be the only Raptor who could consistently score (he had another 10 points), and Toronto was just getting killed in various hustle stats. The Wizards went off for another 25 fastbreak points, for example. But this was felt most significantly on the boards. By the end of the third quarter, the rebounding battle stood at 38-to-20 for Washington, with a 10-to-2 advantage on the offensive glass for the Wizards. As a result, the lead flipped back and forth (17 times!), and it was hard to feel comfortable in light of Toronto’s disastrous stretch run in Game 4. In fact, it felt like another bout of tightness was coming.

When the Wizards’ lead got up to five points early in the fourth quarter, we saw a darkness. The only real solution that could present itself — one that, yes, perhaps the Raptors should have discovered in Game 4 — was Valanciunas. And so the Raptors rolled with the big man, plus Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, and the game’s other star Delon Wright. The Raps’ official little brother played the entire fourth and finished with 18 points, five rebounds, and a pair of steals. He also went 2-of-2 from three after everyone from his Twitter, Instagram, and his family — “about 30 people,” he said — telling him to take those open shots.

Valanciunas, meanwhile, played the quarter’s final eight and a half minutes, was a humongous +18, put in six points, grabbed seven boards (including three on the offensive end), and even somehow managed to strip Wall way up top.

At the final buzzer, with Valanciunas in, the Raptors’ run ended at 26-11. At one point, before the Raps started sagging off on defense with the game in hand, the run was 21-6; quite the turnaround compared to the nervous minutes of the first three quarters. The rebounding margins stayed distant (50-to-35; 14-to-6 on the offensive end), but if the Hive was looking for any extra vindication, this was it.

“We’re trying to get something. You’re searching, you’re trying to pull strings,” said coach Dwane Casey of his lineup switches tonight. “But the key was Jonas did a good job of moving his feet, guarding [Markieff] Morris, guarding their small lineup, which was huge. And that gave us an opportunity to stay with that lineup.”

DeRozan would go on to finish with 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting, and five assists. Kyle Lowry would have a vintage line of 17 and 10, on 7-of-13 shooting (including 3-of-6 from three). And while Miles would step into a couple threes, and Poeltl would squeak in nine points, the story of the game really does belong to Wright, and, yes, Valanciunas.

For the JV Hive, this is all confirmation that they were right all along. And you know what, more power to them. The blueprint is there now for the Raptors — for beating the Wizards, for reasserting their best selves, and for getting back to some of the principles of the highly regarded culture reset. It’d be nice if the Raps didn’t always have to learn these lessons the hard way, but there’s still time.

Game 6 is coming up fast, this Friday night.