The back end of Toronto’s insane, whacked-out, all-over-the-place game against the Wizards was a microcosm of the back end of this insane, whacked-out, all-over-the-place season for the Raptors. At one point, it looked like the Raps had the upper hand. Then they were pronounced dead. And then they had hope again. And then it would repeat. In the end, however, in the final score and in the current standings, the Raptors remained behind the Washington Wizards, losing in overtime 131-129 — a result that all but seals their hopes for a play-in bid.
Leading up to this game, the play-in hopes of the Raptors had yet to be extinguished. Considering the hole for the team’s coffin this season has been dug on about seven separate occasions, it felt a bit surreal to even consider a shot at the playoffs. But here the Raptors were, not yet out of it, facing off against one of the two teams that they had a shot at catching. Beyond the Wizards, the bizarro slide of the Indiana Pacers presented another source of hope and incentive for the Raptors to continue fighting.
That said, the Raptors did not commit to going out on their shields. Kyle Lowry was given the night off for the second game in a row. OG Anunoby was held out of the lineup as well, as a nagging calf injury has bothered him for some time. Chris Boucher has been absent since suffering a knee sprain against the Brooklyn Nets back in April. Although Boucher is clearly injured, you would have to believe that both Anunoby and Lowry would suit up if the stakes were just a wee bit higher. If the Raptors were going to pull this one out, they’d have to do it without two of their four best players.
The results from their replacements were varied, as Gary Trent Jr. and Stanley Johnson slotted into the starting lineup in Lowry and Anunoby’s place. Trent was very good, particularly down the stretch, with his smooth game hitting all the right notes. He would finish with 25 points. Stanley “known more for his defense” Johnson didn’t score a point in 29 minutes of play and though he kept the ball moving and played good enough defense to keep the starting lineup strong, his lack of offensive game stood out and gave Washington’s defense a leg up.
The first five minutes of this one felt like a track meet was about to break out. With a frenetic pace and minimal defense in the early going, the Wizards were right at home. But the Toronto defense eventually steadied, particularly in the second quarter when the Raptors really locked in. At the end of the first half, Toronto led 60-51, a particularly impressive defensive effort against the to-that-point humming Wizards.
Throughout the night, the Raptors made it clear that they were not going to let Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook take this one over. At one point, off a loose ball, three Raptors defenders converged on Beal with their hands up and forced it out of his hands. An efficient use of manpower on defense? Certainly not. But an execution of the spirit of the game plan? You betcha.
Toronto’s Khem Birch was helpful in this facet of the game, as he stuffed both Westbrook and Beal on separate occasions. In fact, Birch was excellent throughout, as his presence consistently meant solid play for the Raptors. He scored his fair share on the inside and even knocked down another corner three.
Leading the way along with Birch was Pascal Siakam, who had his entire offensive repertoire working tonight. His outside shooting kept the defense honest, his whirling dervish drives kept the Wizards on their heels, and he was active and aggressive in transition. His offense was much needed as the team had little creation elsewhere. In the process, Siakam tied his career-high of 44 points, but missed some key free throws down the stretch that could have given the Raptors a better shot at a W. As has been the case all season, if some things broke a different way for Siakam, the outcome here could have been quite different.
Although Beal and Westbrook were held in check for the bulk of regulation, other players on the Wizards got outsized opportunities as is wont to happen with the Raptors’ star-stopping strategy. Raul Neto seemingly could not miss, especially from distance, and Robin Lopez has completed his transformation into 2013 Brook Lopez, putting in work in the post.
With these contributions from their role players keeping Washington in it, the Raptors found themselves up by only one with five minutes to play. Back-to-back corner threes by Gary Trent Jr. and a transition dunk by Birch gave the Raptors some breathing room, but it was soon after that Beal and Westbrook put their stamp on the game with Westbrook’s drives and Beal getting to the line on multiple occasions late, including after getting fouled on a three-point attempt by Birch.
But it’s best not to count out the Raptors. Just as appeared that Westbrook and Beal had the game wrapped in regulation, a leaning Fred VanVleet three with just over a second left tied it up and sent it to overtime. Though the Wizards were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, it was the Raptors who didn’t have the legs in OT — including one sequence that saw them get about five shots in one possession only to front-rim most of them. If not for another brilliant flourish from Siakam, this one would not have been nearly as close as it was.
Beal, who finished with 28 points, was able to break out of the clamps the Raptors had him in for most of the game and took over the overtime period, forcing Toronto to play the intentional foul game down the stretch. There would not be another miracle this time, as a last-second Siakam three bounced harmlessly off the backboard, never threatening to drop in.
This game was the last real chance for the Raptors to cobble together a shot at the playoffs, and based on Toronto’s active roster, they didn’t necessarily even want this one that bad. Odds are that the resting of key players will escalate now, and the team will fade away as we prepare to say goodbye to a season that was really never going to be a success from the start. If anything, this game was a fitting punctuation mark on a strange, messy season.
Time to get back to Toronto.