In last night’s recap, I mused that the decisions made by Raptors staff over the next week — deciding who makes the final roster and who doesn’t — can’t be easy. The team has trotted out 18 quality NBA players through five exhibition games, servicing a vision of basketball where a collection of long bodies can defend hard, force turnovers, and keep a sometimes anemic half court offence in gruelling contests.
This congruity between players ratchets up the difficulty of roster decisions even further. With guys like Sam Dekker and Ish Wainwright showing the same body type, guarding the same players — where can you find the separation in five games or in camp to decide who makes it and who doesn’t? The same thought process goes for Freddie Gillespie and Isaac Bonga, even if the former is a bit more diminuitive. What do you want from that end-of-bench big position?
Tonight, we saw the perfect storm to make those final roster decisions as hard as possible. Both Sam Dekker and Freddie Gillespie played their best games of the preseason after struggling in the first four outings, while Malachi Flynn — competing for a spot in the Raptors rotation — led Toronto with 22 points. Those who may have been outside the bubble coming into Tuesday showed some pop, as it was Toronto’s bench that rallied them back from a deficit to the Washington Wizards, eventually winning 113-108.
The victory improves Toronto’s record to 3-2 in the preseason, as they now take time off before the season opener on October 20 against these very same Wizards.
Though they didn’t provide much scoring punch early, the two headlines during Toronto’s comeback — they trailed by nine after three quarters — were Flynn and Dekker. The second-year point guard scored 13 of his 22 points in the final frame, while Dekker dropped 12 of his 18, as the team went on to win the last quarter by 13 points.
Flynn showed off a bit of everything we got used to seeing from him in 2020-21 in his 26 minutes tonight, adding two rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block to his points total for a truly all-around performance. The guard also went 7-for-8 from the charity stripe.
Dekker, meanwhile, went unconscious with his jumper, making 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-5 from three — even earning the respect of Wizards double teams at one point. The forward showed some change of pace game too in getting to the rim, and showcased the value that the Raptors brought him in for — making buckets on bench units that might otherwise lack shooting touch.
The battle between Wainwright and Dekker for the last roster spot has maybe become the most intriguing of those to watch, with both players bookending the preseason with excellent performances.
Freddie Gillespie, meanwhile, didn’t show out as much with his box score line — just three points in 12 minutes — but he grabbed seven rebounds, two of them offensive, as he ably battled the Wizards’ Daniel Gafford through the second half and kept the Raptors pushing into transition play. Bonga got the start tonight, maybe indicating that Nick Nurse wants a longer look there rather than Gillespie, but the play of both has kept that roster spot battle strong.
Toronto made the call to sit Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby tonight, which left Goran Dragic and Gary Trent Jr. as the primary weapons in the Raptors’ starting lineup — the two combined to score 28 points on 9-for-23 shooting. For those who just came into the preseason wanting to get a sense of Scottie Barnes’ game, though, this was once again an excellent showcase for the rookie. Assigned to guard Bradley Beal, Barnes held the all-star to a miserable outing.
What a half for Barnes. A few days after getting the Jayson Tatum assignment, the rook has been the primary defender on Bradley Beal, who was held without a bucket (0-5 FG) in 18 first-half minutes. Oh, and he's also got 9 points and 3 assists of his own. Scottie doing it all.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) October 13, 2021
Beal would end up 1-for-11 with just seven points. The Wizards were led by Kyle Kuzma’s 24 points, along with 17 from Montrez Harrell and 15 from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
On the other end, Barnes would score nine points on 4-for-10 shooting. With Siakam out for some time to start the regular season, opportunities for Barnes will abound in the starting unit. The battles at the bottom of the roster are interesting, sure, but what we saw in the first half might be more impactful for the long-term success of the Raptors — at least until they can get Siakam back into the fold.