Last night, all in the span of about an hour, we got the Wizards giving up completely in the last minute of the game, Delon Wright blocking the life out of Kelly Oubre in the dying seconds (don’t worry, he’ll get better) and the Wizards dishing out some ridiculous self-owns in their post game press conferences. Between all of that it was pretty easy to forget that the Raptors’ series clinching win was, at one point, a close game. Not just any close game either, but one where the Wizards led throughout, holding a lead going into the fourth quarter.
Heroes can’t show up right away, if they showed up early then there wouldn’t be any danger for them to save us from. Fred VanVleet was held out of games one through five not because Fred VanVleet was injured, but because Fred VanVleet is a superhero. And if VanVleet is a superhero then the Raptors’ bench is the most ambitious superhero crossover event in history.
The end of the second act in a three act structure is when the protagonists typically reach their lowest point. Often they lose a major ally just prior, and discover how hard it is to continue without them. You’ve got Gandalf in the the Two Towers, Obi-Wan in Star Wars and, well, I’d go on but those are really the only two series I feel comfortable spoiling. My point is that the first five games of this series were the end of the second act for the bench unit. They were great throughout the first act, the regular season, and Delon Wright exceeded himself to start the playoffs, but the rest of the bench looked like shells of themselves for most of the first round. Jakob Poeltl was soft at the rim and on the glass, Pascal Siakam was getting owned by Mike Scott and C.J. Miles was wildly inconsistent. Most importantly though, they were without their leader, VanVleet.
Life doesn’t conform to three act structures, and yet last night it did. Fred VanVleet showed up on the dawn of the sixth day and, re-united, the Raptors’ bench moved past their struggles to swing the game with three climactic minutes to start fourth quarter.
The Raptors began the quarter down five. Jakob Poeltl had been the Raptors’ worst player in the series to that point, and he just had surrendered a tip in to Tomas Satoransky in the closing seconds of the third. Perhaps looking for redemption he began the final frame by coming out high to take the ball out of Bradley Beal’s hands, recovering quickly to force a Markieff Morris miss and then running the length of the floor to draw a shooting foul in transition.
The Bench Mob followed that up with two solid defensive stands. They’d shuffled their matchups to have Pascal Siakam guarding John Wall and C.J. Miles guarding Mike Scott and were rewarded with consecutive stops on Scott and Wall. Then Fred VanVleet, the late arriving hero, calmly stuck a three off a broken play to bring the game back to a tie.
After John Wall sunk two free throws to give the Wizards back the lead, Pascal Siakam knotted things back up with a spin move into a jump hook. That move had been Siakam’s signature method of creating for himself throughout the year, but it had been conspicuously absent from the series to that point.
Opponents had shot 85% at the rim against Jakob Poeltl in games one through five, but he put that behind him for the start of the fourth. He forced another miss, this time altering a Bradley Beal layup. On the other end he snuck inside to grab an offensive board and draw another shooting foul. His second free throw would give the Raptors their first lead of the fourth quarter.
On the next play the length of Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright proved too disruptive for John Wall in the pick and roll. Wall coughed the ball up and Wright found a trailing C.J. Miles for a transition three pointer. With the Raptors now up by four the Wizards called a timeout. They would never recover the lead.
That was the stretch that swung the game, but the bench didn’t stop. They would stick around as a five-man unit for three more minutes, holding onto the lead they had built while the Raptors’ stars rested. Then, with Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas in place of Poeltl and Miles, they would bury the Wizards, all but finishing them off with this remarkable transition layup from Pascal Siakam.
Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, it’s awesome to finally have the Mob back.