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Raptors toy with late comeback, but fall to Wizards in home opener

The Raptors looked rough for most of their homecoming game against Washington. But the wild fourth quarter is what this season’s going to be all about.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There will be arms, there will be spells that test the limits of wretched NBA offense, and there will be unstoppably fun stretches where the deranged but hopeful vision of Toronto’s front office is fully realized in ways more thrilling than you can imagine. Welcome to your 2021-22 Raptors experience.

There are gonna be some — maybe lots — of losses, too. Apart from a few delightfully frenzied moments, Wednesday night’s 98-83 opening night defeat at the hands of the Wizards failed to match the joyous occasion that was the team’s official return home. When you construct a roster of unseasoned, defensively-inclined youths who are light on offensive punch, you run the risk of playing games that look like this one.

At the outset of Toronto’s official homecoming game, it didn’t feel like much could wave away the glorious haze of elation, excitement and pyrotechnic fumes that hung over Scotiabank Arena. There seemed too many reasons for unencumbered glee.

Not breaking 50 points until the wee minutes of the third quarter sure did the trick, though.

It’s probably not wise to make grand proclamations on day one of the season, but it feels safe to say that the first 36 minutes of Wednesday’s game represent the absolute nadir of this new-look Raptors team’s output. They may reach the similar low-points again, but it really doesn’t seem possible to slide to depths deeper than a lifeless 30-point deficit against a not very good Wizards team in your long-lost home gym.

“There was a whole bunch of point blank layups that kept finding a way to roll off,” said Nick Nurse of the decent overall quality of the looks the Raptors got on the night. “And they were kind of spirit takers a little bit... They’re probably laying it in cause we’re taking a stride or two cause we’re dejected... We can’t compound our mistakes like that.”

Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby might never again combine for a shooting line (8-of-30, 3-of-18 from three) as ugly as this one; Khem Birch’s weary sea legs should grow steadier the further removed from COVID he gets, giving Toronto a calming foil at center next to Precious Achiuwa’s erratic swings; Nick Nurse’s incredibly complex defense will either become easier for his players to process, or it’ll get scaled back by necessity. The team’s best player will also come back in the next month or so, which is important.

That’s not to say everything that went against the Raptors in what should have been a triumphant return home is fixable. Flaws that were pinpointable in the summer and preseason are very much there now that the games matter, with the half court offense the most glaring. Any preseason hopes of a surprise leap into the home court half of the playoff bracket were misguided anyway, but can probably be chucked in the bin after night one.

But that’s OK, because this isn’t one that’ll be judged on the team’s final record or playoff status, or at least it shouldn’t be. This is a seedling year. What it’s really about is the crazy shit we saw go down in the fourth quarter — and on the final play of the third.

The fourth quarter against Washington was everything Raptors fans should be hoping to see from this weirdo crew of players this season. Banton’s life-giving buzzer-beater sent the Raptors into the final frame on a high. With a lineup of Banton, Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr. tasked with leading a patented Raptors fake comeback, you could see why the Raptors are going all in on length and fungibility. Banton’s slithery, heads-up drives, Barnes’ grace/power combo on the run, and Boucher’s bouncy shot-blocking shone brightly as Toronto made it interesting, cutting the lead to as little as 10 in the closing minutes. Barnes ended tied for the team lead with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting; his fellow draft classmate Banton (7 points, 4 rebounds on 3-of-4 shooting) might have played himself out of immediate 905 duty when the G-League season begins. There’s an argument to be made that Rexdale’s own should be with the big club all season just in case the Raptors need to incite an impromptu rocking ovation.

“What you’re doing a lot of times there is trying to ignite some energy and some speed and some hard play,” said Nurse when asked about his last-ditch lineup, adding that he thought that group did just what he was hoping.

You kinda knew in the pit of your stomach that the comeback effort was a little too late-developing for the Raptors to steal the win and move to 1-0. But at the feverish height of the attempt, it was indistinguishable in the building which team was winning or losing. That’s gonna be the charm of these Raptors and their arc of development. Moments of destitution will be offset by stints where the long, athletic and utterly ecstatic Raptors will look like world-beaters, the final results of most games fading to memory while the meaningful instances of progress stick in the mind for good.