Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 116-109 win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday.
1. The Raptors showed much more urgency in the rematch against Washington. These were must-win games for both sides, which is why it was so hugely disappointing that the Raptors came out so flat in the first meeting.
Nick Nurse made the necessary adjustments in preparation for the Wizards’ zone defence, and he shuffled his rotation so his bench didn’t crater like last time, but the bigger emphasis overall was the physicality. Toronto made Washington’s top scorers uncomfortable all game as they forced 24 turnovers — including 13 between Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Kuzma — to overcome the Wizards’ dead-eye shooting from three (58 per cent).
Neither side was able to establish a double-digit lead until the Raptors broke through to begin the fourth, but the Wizards came all the way back with a momentary lapse where Delon Wright slipped free for three to force overtime. Toronto regrouped with an 11-4 edge to secure the badly-needed win.
The Raptors will host the final meeting in three weeks, which promises to be another hard-fought game as both sides seem to hold distinct advantages over the other which makes this a compelling matchup.
2. Fred VanVleet had one of his best games of the season, including two threes in overtime to secure the win. VanVleet was excellent early on with his playmaking and finished with 10 assists without a turnover on a night where Pascal Siakam was once again quiet on offence.
VanVleet didn’t look for his shot until Washington fell back into their zone, which worked to great effect in the first meeting, but Nurse had clearly drilled his team to counter with his star point guard being one of the shooters moving off-ball to find space to shoot.
Defensively, VanVleet had the assignment once again on Wright where VanVleet would help off in the lane to disrupt Beal, Porzingis, and Kuzma’s drives, but Wright did make the Raptors pay with an uncharacteristic 4 of 6 shooting from three. That being said, VanVleet had three steals and two blocks and was instrumental in disrupting drives in the paint.
Down the stretch, Washington went to a very heavy dose of Beal trying to attack VanVleet on a switch, which involved O.G. Anunoby switching onto Wright. The play worked initially as Beal got a tough driving layup to fall over VanVleet, and the Raptors then brought defensive help early on the drives. That led to breakdowns for Porzingis to attack but that went away once VanVleet started shutting off Beal in single coverage with help only coming late at the basket. Beal finished with 7 of 22 shooting with five turnovers.
3. Gary Trent Jr. bounced back emphatically for a game-high 26 points after just four in the first meeting. The Raptors were much more dynamic in how they got Trent Jr. involved on offence compared to Thursday’s loss where he was out of rhythm and having to create a lot of his own looks off the dribble where he isn’t as strong.
His first three was a transition push by Siakam where Trent Jr. flared out for three, his second attempt was a drive-and-kick from VanVleet, his third try was a cut behind the defence to beat the zone, then the Raptors brought Trent Jr. around a set of double screens to drive and stop on a dime for his patented midrange, and it went on in that varied fashion until he caught fire in the fourth.
Trent Jr. went on a personal 7-0 run to push the advantage to 11 points, forcing the Wizards into a timeout, and convincing Nurse to close out the game with Trent Jr. ahead of Scottie Barnes, and then over Jakob Poeltl in the last minute of regulation and overtime. Trent Jr. was even able to show off his playmaking, where he had four assists and the hockey assists in overtime where he drew a double team, flipped it to Barnes rolling to the rim, who then reversed it out to VanVleet for the dagger.
Trent Jr. is the right option to bring off the bench, but the Raptors need to be diligent and creative in running plays for him to attack rather than giving him the ball and expecting him to be a self-starter. He’s not that archetype of sixth man even if his overall impact is similar.
4. The second unit was much better as a whole. Trent Jr. led the way on offence, while Chris Boucher and Will Barton carried the rest with their hustle.
Boucher’s effort on the offensive glass was admirable since he was often the only one chasing the glass, and yet he would come up with timely deflections including one to set up Barton for his first three as a member of the Raptors. Boucher also cashed a three at the end of the third off a nice pass from Trent Jr. out of a high double team.
Barton was the surprise X-factor on defence, with a steal to break up a dunk, a block at the rim and a phenomenal display against Kuzma in the fourth quarter. The play was for Kuzma to get the ball on the left block, but Barton pressured it all the way and tipped the inbound pass out of bounds on the first try. Washington inbounded to Kuzma on the same spot, but even before the ball was handed over by the official, Barton was already wrestling the bigger Kuzma for post position and forced Kuzma to catch it deep in the corner, which made it easy to send the double. Under duress, the pass went out to the top between two Wizards players, which set up Trent Jr. for the steal and layup going the other way.
5. Outside of Trent Jr., the most important bench player is Precious Achiuwa, who remains in an awful funk since being demoted from the starting group following Poeltl’s arrival. Achiuwa had been flourishing in the starting centre role, but he has been lost on both ends of the floor for the reserves.
He wasn’t as bad as he was on Thursday, but Daniel Gafford bullied him around the basket to carry the second group, and he conceded a driving layup by the smaller Jordan Goodwin and a three to Corey Kispert. Offensively, Achiuwa bobbled at least half of his catches and turned down a wide-open look at the foul line in a possession that later ended with an even tougher runner for him.
Nurse needs Achiuwa to play up to his potential on defence, both as the backup for Anunoby and as the reserve center behind Poeltl.
The alternative there is Thaddeus Young, who can be hidden when he plays elsewhere but is a non-factor at centre when he is asked to be the last line of defence. Nurse needs to find some way to restore Achiuwa’s confidence even though he demoted him yet again because that’s the missing piece in the rotation at the moment.