– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
WASHINGTON — Known for possessing an exorbitant amount of calm amidst the tumult surrounding late-game and pressure-packed situations throughout his young basketball career, Raptors guard Fred Van Vleet turned what was bound to be a moment of chaos — and a possible blown double-digit fourth-quarter lead by his team — into the moment Toronto secured another win during its perfect start to the season.
Van Vleet rescued an errant inbounds pass late in the shot clock before swishing through a 20-foot heave from the top of the key with 13.9 seconds remaining, providing the winning basket in the Raptors’ 117-113 victory over the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena, a game played without the services of Kawhi Leonard, who sat as a precaution as Toronto was playing its third game in four nights.
With a once 13-point lead earlier in the quarter whittled down to two at 113-111, and inbounding the ball underneath the basket with the shot clock running down, Toronto’s designed play looked to be going awry when Kyle Lowry’s inbounds pass went through the legs of a cutting Serge Ibaka and bounced away from the rim for anyone to claim. In swooped an alert Van Vleet, who beat Kelly Oubre Jr. for the ball and, in one motion, put up a prayer of a high-arcing shot toward the basket that splashed through the net and silenced the raucous atmosphere inside the arena.
“It went through [Ibaka’s] legs and I just tried to get an angle on the rim,” said Van Vleet, who finished 13 points, five assists and four rebounds coming off the bench. “I think I took one dribble or one step and tried to get a look at it and was able to knock it down. At that point, you just want to get a shot up and get an attempt and [I] was able to knock it down.”
Coming through in the clutch on the Capital One Arena floor is nothing new for Van Vleet, whose last game in DC saw him play an influential role off the bench in Toronto’s series-clinching victory in Game 6 of last year’s first-round playoff series between the teams.
“It’s really fun. [The Wizards] really bring it here and they’re a special team at home,” Van Vleet said. “They really know how to get the crowd into it and they’re just so explosive that you can never relax. Ten-point leads, 12-point leads seem to feel like one-point leads with them the way they score in bunches. It’s a hostile environment, it’s a tough place to play and as a competitor, that’s kind of what you want is those tough environments.”
In the absence of Leonard, who missed the majority of last season while in San Antonio with a quadriceps injury, seven players scored in double figures for Toronto, including four off of the Raptors’ vaunted bench; Ibaka had 16 points, Van Vleet with 13 and Pascal Siakim and CJ Miles each put in 10.
Lowry led all Raptors scorers with 28 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
“The biggest thing you can take away is we’ve got a spirited group that’s ready to fight,” said Raptors first-year head coach Nick Nurse. “It’s not been very pretty, right, and I’m not happy with some of our organization offensively. I mean, we’re making a lot of plays.”
Toronto made more than enough of the right plays during the third quarter — hitting 58 percent of their shots form the floor while holding the Wizards to 6-of-18 shooting — in building a 90-82 lead at the end of the period, and jumpers from Norman Powell and Ibaka to start the fourth quickly gave the Raptors a double-digit lead.
Not too long afterward, tempers started to fray on the Wizards, as a foul call on Bradley Beal as he appeared to be knocked down to the floor by Ibaka, as well as the lack of a whistle when John Wall fell out-of-bounds with possession of the ball while on a fast break, led to Beal being called for a technical foul. Soon after, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks came well onto the court to vociferously argue with the officials, and he was almost immediately ejected from the game.
“I think it was a combination of a lot of things that I saw and then the frustration built up,” Brooks said. “But it’s something that I’ve been talking with all our guys that we got to play through whatever we think that’s against us. Just play through it. Quite honestly, I set a poor example. I’m disappointed in myself.”
Brooks’ ejection served as the catalyst for Washington’s fourth-quarter comeback, as it went on a 17-7 run immediately after the two technical free throws by the Raptors, capped off by an Oubre Jr. three-pointer to get within 109-196 with 2:20 remaining. Beal scored 10 of Washington’s points during that spurt, including hitting threes on back-to-back possessions.
“It’s very tough. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because [John Wall and I] work extremely hard on both ends of the court,” Beal said in reference to the tightly-officiated nature of the game. “We compete and play hard. We play physical and we try to set the tone and energy for the game, but sometimes it feels like it’s taken away from us and that puts us on our heels. We can’t get caught up in that. All we can do is control what we can control.”
Beal led all scorers with 32 points, including making six of his 11 three-point attempts. His fifth three allowed him to surpass Gilbert Arenas for the franchise record for threes made in a career, as Beal now has 870 career threes made, all while with Washington.
“I wasn’t aware, but that’s a blessing,” Beal said about setting the franchise’s three-point mark. “That’s amazing and I’m honored. I won’t say that was a goal of mine, but that’s a pretty cool accomplishment to have and one that I’m proud of.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday evening’s game, with all photos taken by DC-Area photographer Yusuf Abdullah. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 10 pictures in total.