Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 103-101 win over the Washington Wizards.
One — Wow: This was hardly a pretty game, which is what you would expect from the 11th and 13th seeds in the East, but the ending was worth enduring through the first three quarters. The Raptors were without a true point guard so the offense stagnated at times, and they were only 4-of-25 from three through three quarters which left them trailing by 19 points, but the Raptors stormed back and won it at the buzzer thanks to a running three from Gary Trent Jr. There was a questionable no-call involved as Raul Neto shot backwards as if Trent clubbed him with a baseball bat on his push-off, but that came on the heels of an even more questionable charge call that went against the Raptors, so it all evens out.
Two — Together: The game-winner was the cherry on top, but the best part of this win was seeing the Raptors playing together as a group. This game didn't go according to plan, as Chris Boucher was off, OG Anunoby couldn't buy a basket, and the Wizards kept hitting ridiculous threes, but the Raptors stuck together and fought back as a team. Pascal Siakam did most of the heavy lifting for the first unit, while the second unit actually contributed positively for what feels like the first time all season. The Wizards aren't that hard to guard because Russell Westbrook can be very predictable with his blind aggression, and what the Raptors needed to focus on was keeping Westbrook in front of them, then boxing out to secure the rebound. They did just enough of that over the fourth quarter to get the win.
Three — Glue: DeAndre' Bembry stepped up in a huge way in the absence of both Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. Bembry is very different from the two starting guards since he's not a threat to shoot, nor does he dominate the ball, but Bembry has a quirky skillset that often catches teams off-guard. Bembry loves to drive, but he moves with a zigzagging cadence so that it's hard to anticipate the angle he's going up at, and that's how he got so many layups to fall despite Washington's defenders being in position. Bembry also showed off some impressive passes, including one to split three defenders to find a cutter along the baseline (a role normally played by Bembry), and with an up fake as if he were going in for the layup, but keeping his pivot down and dropping it off to Aron Baynes rolling to the basket. Bembry won't get to play this role all the time, but he was great tonight.
Four — Stubborn: The Wizards were moving the ball beautifully in the first half, which resulted in dunks and open threes, but all that went away in the fourth quarter. Most of it came down to Westbrook deciding to take the game over even though he had already been dominating with his playmaking for the first three quarters. Westbrook started settling and rattled off a run of eight-straight missed jumpers over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, which opened the door for the Raptors to come back. Most of these were unforced too, as Westbrook had the ball and all the decision making in his hand, and it seemed like sheer stubbornness in how he kept repeating the same move which only played into the Raptors' hands. He did make a three at the end and it looked to be his redemption, but the end result was a loss in which he shot 9-of-25. Bembry had the assignment for most of the night, and he said that while Westbrook is a great player and great players cannot be stopped entirely, that there is a trick to baiting Westbrook out of his game.
Five — Confident: The one thing every Raptors teammate keeps saying about Malachi Flynn is that he's a confident player, which is an odd assessment given his approach as a rookie up until the past two games. Flynn went from being tentative, to suddenly driving and scoring on 7-footers at the rim through contact with his off hand, and he looks like an entirely different player. Flynn has been able to get to the basket at will, and it's thanks to his quickness, which bested even the likes of Ish Smith, who has notoriously killed the Raptors with his speed in previous seasons. Flynn has good technique to get to his pull-up jumper, but he's not settling anymore as he's starting to read the gaps in the defense where he can take his shot. That's a result of the game slowing down for him, which is allowing his confidence to show.
Six — Scrappy: The other part of Flynn's game is that he competes defensively, which is an absolute must for small point guards. Flynn finished with four steals and three blocks, and had one stretch in the second quarter where he collected four straight stops, many of which put the Raptors on the fast break. Flynn even made two stops in transition, one time on a chasedown block, and another to redeem himself on a turnover where he made a play at the rim to erase a surefire 2-on-1 advantage. Those two plays speaks to his instinct and it is a reflection of good coaching, because the timing it takes to make those plays is mostly based on feel, and the will to get back with such urgency comes from it being drilled into you at lower levels.
Seven — Banger: The Raptors don't win this game without Baynes stepping up off the bench. Chris Boucher was being thoroughly outplayed by former Raptors center Alex Len, to the point where Boucher was complaining each time he got swallowed up at the basket by the stronger player. Boucher was mostly in to provide spacing, but his three was off, and it allowed the Wizards to sit back and camp in the lane. The same effect happened with Baynes on the floor, but he was able to find the angle to roll to the basket, made the same number of threes on three fewer attempts, and most importantly, his physicality impacted the Wizards' finishing at the rim. Baynes was in such a mood that he even took a heat-check three, which would be inexcusable in any other context but he really deserved that look tonight. Nick Nurse was smart to cash in his chips when he could, as Baynes started coughing up the ball and Nurse finished with a smallball group instead.
Eight — Determined: Siakam had a rough start and a shaky finish, but was dominant for large stretches of the game. He recognized that the Wizards had nobody who could check him 1-on-1, so Siakam made it a point to drive to the rim, and he forced the Wizards to adjust. Washington's counter was to stack the lane against Siakam, putting a second defender on his side of the floor which was made possible by Bembry and the Raptors' centers not being threats to shoot, and that's when Siakam got into trouble. The next step for him is to slow down in those scenarios, to attack and bait the traps, while not being too out of control to find the right kickout play. Siakam has a tendency to rush, beat the defense to the spot, before jumping into the air to find the right pass, and that's a bad habit that won't work against disciplined teams.
Nine — Off: This was the first game since returning to the lineup where OG Anunoby looked shaky. He started great, including crossing up Robin Lopez to get free for an emphatic two-handed jam, and he finished strong with some clutch baskets that contributed to the comeback, but everything inbetween was questionable. Similar to Siakam, there is a rawness in how Anunoby attacks on offense, where he can get out of control and lose his balance. He's curbed a lot of that this season, which is why he's having a breakout year, but this is a learning experience where the coaches should review the tape and show the instances where Anunoby made the wrong reads.
Ten — Adorable: VanVleet was a late scratch due to the hip injury he picked up against the Warriors, but he was still a factor on the sidelines. He was up on the sidelines with the assistant coaches, chatting about strategy during the plays, while also getting into the ears of his teammates during timeouts. VanVleet was so into the game that he was even in a defensive stance on the baseline on the Wizards' last few possessions, which is something his old coach Dwane Casey would also do. For players both active or retired, the habit of competitiveness is hard to kick.
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