Maybe this is exactly what the Toronto Raptors were hoping for.
Sure, their play-in tournament lives were very much on the line Thursday night against the Washington Wizards. But making the playoffs didn't seem to particularly interest the organization who opted to rest Kyle Lowry in what essentially amounted to a must-win game. Instead, the organization wanted to use Thursday to "evaluate" some of their younger players and get a feel for what this core might look like next season. Maybe this was exactly what the Raptors' front office wanted. Toronto got to see some really impressive performance from its young stars who showed the kind of hustle and determination that has come to define these Raptors teams. At the same time, though, the Wizards snuck out of Tampa with a 131-129 OT victory to just about wrap things up for the Raptors this season.
"The guys played their guts out, man, they played with tremendous heart," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "I'm not frustrated at all and I'm very proud of the guys, actually."
Most notable of Toronto's relatively young stars to put on a show Thursday night was was Pascal Siakam. Toronto's 27-year-old forward had his way with the Wizards' big men all night. He repeatedly went at Davis Bertans, spinning around the 6-foot-10 Latvian for easy buckets at the rim. Through three quarters he had 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting.
"For me that he's getting buckets in a variety of ways and that he's playing at the other end, right, like he can and because he is a super defender," Nurse said. "That's not easy to do, to be the guy that's putting up 25 plus some nights 30, 40 whatever it is and still producing at the other end as well and that's it.
"He's a tremendous talent, he’s a tremendous person."
When the going got tough late in the fourth quarter and into overtime Siakam starred. So many times this year it's been these late and close opportunities that have plagued Siakam. He's repeatedly missed game-winning and game-tying shots and fumbled away golden opportunities late. On Thursday, he looked stellar in the clutch, getting to the rim or finding perfect passes to make things easy on his teammates. While he did have some free throw issues late, Toronto's loss couldn't be blamed in any way on the former All-Star who finished with a career-high 44 points, including 18 points in the fourth and overtime, 11 rebounds, and seven assists.
"I feel like it’s just something new and just learning from those experiences I felt like a lot of players go through their career and don’t get to be in these situations and I’ve been blessed to be in those situations and no matter the outcome," Siakam said of his late-game moments. "I think that’s something that I feel I can only get better from, it’s all those moments and you learn from it and you hope to make the right decision the next time."
It was, however, his desperation 3-point shot at the buzzer that of course banked off the backboard and bounced wide that could have won things for Toronto.
While Siakam led the way for most of the night, it was Fred VanVleet who played hero in the fourth quarter. He kept Toronto's faint play-in hopes alive, splitting a pair of Wizards defenders and nailing an above-the-break 3-pointer to tie things up with 1.3 seconds to go in regulation.
It was too good to be true. Those faint hopes disappeared as Beal finally wiggled away from Toronto's swarming defence and the Raptors missed four straight 3-pointers that certainly could have changed things in overtime.
The bench, once again, didn't give the Raptors very much, but Gary Trent Jr. starred in his first game back from injury and his first start since April 18. He showed the kind of shooting Toronto has come to expect from him, nailing five 3-pointers for XX points on the night.
While Beal did find some success late, Toronto held him to just 14 points through three quarters. Nurse gave both him and Russell Westbrook the usual superstar treatment. For Westbrook, that of course meant plenty of assists. He finished with another triple-double, his 34th of the season, scoring 13 points to go with 17 assists and 17 rebounds. It was Raul Neto the Wizards' third offensive option that Toronto couldn't quite stop. The 6-foot-1 Brazilian killed the Raptors for a career-high 25 points.
"That’s Nick Nurse. He likes to junk the game up," Beal said of Toronto's box-and-one.
With the loss, the Raptors move four games back of the Wizards for the final play in spot. While they aren't mathematically out of it, it's pretty safe to say it's over.
Up Next: Memphis Grizzlies
The Raptors will be right back at it on Saturday night when the Memphis Grizzlies come to town for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff