Tuesday night, when the Raptors played the Minnesota Timberwolves, it felt like they’d finally figured out how to win in the clutch. They shared the ball, kept guys involved, and used different angles of attack from different players to keep the Timberwolves defense guessing and generate buckets. After the team has struggled in the clutch most of the season, often regressing to the isolation-based habits of years past, it seemed like they had figured out that the new offensive habits that they had showcased for the first three quarters of games also worked in the fourth.
The Washington Wizards have a way of taking feel-good moments for the Raptors and turning them on their head though, and last night was no different.
In the first quarter, the Raptors came out swinging. Their opening possessions were threes from Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, and OG Anunoby also contributed three makes from downtown as the starters had no trouble scoring early. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry both took on the task of distributing and getting those other guys going, but the team struggled to control their defensive boards, and Washington also managed to score enough easy baskets to keep the game within range. The bench came in late in the corner, and with Fred Van Vleet and CJ Miles both unavailable in this game, the bench unit never quite found their rhythm in this one. Still, the opening flurry spurred the Raptors to a 7-point lead through one quarter.
In the second, the benches traded baskets as Jakob Poeltl scored one off a nice pass from Norman Powell in the pick and roll and another off a putback, adding a free throw, and Norman Powell contributed the remainder of the bench offense, making two threes and scoring 8 in the frame to maintain the Raptors’ edge. On the other side, Mike Scott couldn’t seem to miss a contested jump shot, and made several difficult looks. When the Raptors starters came back in, Jonas Valanciunas kept his momentum going after one of the best months of his career in January, hitting all 5 of his shots and scoring 11 in the 2nd. The Raptors had several defensive lapses late in the quarter, and only a Valanciunas three in the last minute allowed the Raptors to keep their 7-point advantage going into halftime.
The tale of the first half was a balanced Toronto attack, with contributions up and down the roster to make up for the guys who were out and build an advantage, and this was how the Raptors had found success this season. However, in the second half, they went away from that gameplan.
In the third quarter, Bradley Beal went off for the Wizards, scoring 11 quick points in the first three minutes of the frame, and 17 overall in the quarter. He hit three shots from long distance, and the Raptors offense devolved to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry trading looks, with the two players taking 13 of Toronto’s 20 attempts in the quarter, and hitting just four shots. They did manage nine free throws between them, but the tone had clearly changed for the road team, and the offense felt sluggish, with possessions progressing slower and often generating difficult looks, as the Wizards went to the fourth with a one point lead.
The fourth quarter opened with the benches going head to head again, and Jodie Meeks caught fire for the Wizards, scoring 10 quick points, while the Raptors bench struggled to generate anything. Lorenzo Brown had a hard time in this game trying to fill the shoes of Van Vleet, and he never really looked comfortable running the offense. The Raptors went back to their starters quickly, with Norman Powell taking the place of OG Anunoby in that lineup, having done a decent job guarding Bradley Beal, and playing the entire quarter while this lineup played the final eight minutes for the Raptors. The offense was much of the same though, with Kyle Lowry nearly delivering a masterpiece with 17 in the fourth on 8 shots, and DeMar DeRozan contributing 8, hitting all three of his shots in the quarter.
With just over three minutes to go, the score was tied at 110, and the Raptors had the ball. However, a Lowry turnover led to Markieff Morris rebounding his own miss and hitting two free throws to give the edge to Washington. Norman Powell, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry each missed three point attempts before Markieff Morris hit one to stretch the lead to five with 1:45 remaining. After a Raptors timeout, Serge Ibaka missed another three, but Lowry was able to grab the rebound, and DeMar DeRozan drew a foul and hit two free throws to make it a one possession game again. Bradley Beal came back down to the other end, missed a long two-point jumper late in the shot clock, but the Raptors gave up another offensive rebound and the Wizards called a timeout with 58 seconds to go, and that’s where this one got weird. Lowry was able to get a steal on the ensuing Wizards possession, but yet another missed three-point attempt, this one from Ibaka, forced Lowry to foul to stop the clock. Otto Porter hit one of two, and the Raptors came back down and got a quick layup from DeRozan to make it 116-114 for Washington. Porter hit two more freebies, and the Raptors took the quick two again, except this time Lowry got the shooting foul as well, with an opportunity to make it a one point game with 11 seconds on the clock. Lowry missed the free throw, and after another Raptors foul to stop the clock, Bradley Beal calmly knocked two down at the other end to stretch it back to a four-point lead, and Lowry hit another quick two, with just four seconds left. It felt like this one was over at this point, with barely any time left for the Raptors to foul and generate a look at the other end, even if Washington missed a free throw, but Lowry managed to get the steal on the in-bounds play and draw a foul, with a chance to tie. However, he missed one of the two ensuing free throws to seal the game for Washington.
The easy answer for what went wrong would be to say the Raptors lost it on those missed free throws. After all, Lowry missed two in the final 11 seconds, and hitting either of those would’ve given you a chance at overtime. I’d go back, though, to the stretch between in the last three minutes when the Raptors spent four consecutive possessions generating three-point shots that didn’t go down and not trying to attack into the paint, as the Wizards built their lead that took them to the victory. In the first half, Toronto got 16 points on just 8 shots from Jonas Valanciunas, and they ran nothing for him after halftime, with him not attempting a single shot after that point.
This was the reverse of the Minnesota game, when they attacked the paint late, with Ibaka attacking off the dribble, and Valanciunas creating a bucket, and the team finding good opportunities through trusting each other. In this one, it felt more like they were taking turns trying to win the game by making difficult shots, and that’s a gameplan that hasn’t worked this season, and certainly didn’t last night. Toronto will have to get over their second half struggles in a hurry though, as this was the first half of a back-to-back and the second game in a stretch of four in six nights. As well, the Raptors fell to just 2-12 in games where DeMar DeRozan attempts a shot in the final two minutes while down by 5 or less or tied, and this was the 50th game of the season, leaving them just 32 more regular season games to figure out their late execution, which is something they’ll need a plan for going into the playoffs.
This one hurts, but it can be useful down the road, if it’s used as a lesson in how not to execute late.