Raptors secure 5th seed in wacky win over Rockets

Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 117-115 win Friday night over the Houston Rockets.

One — The Raptors were far from their best but did just enough to edge out the Rockets. They were in the hole immediately, trailing by 24 points early in the second quarter with the team’s younger players making boneheaded decisions on both ends of the floor. But they picked up their composure before the game was out of reach, climbed back on two separate occasions to pull even, and edged ahead by the slightest margin at the end to collect their 48th win of the year.

The Raptors have locked in the fifth seed heading into the final week of the regular season and will match up on the road against either Philadelphia or Boston.

Two — It was a controversial finish at the end. Gary Trent Jr. beat the clock with a drive to split multiple defenders for a floater to push ahead by two with 4.8 seconds left. On the final play, the Rockets inbounded to rookie center Alperen Sengun who had Pascal Siakam shading him on a backdown. Siakam ultimately forced the stop by contesting Sengun’s hook, but replays showed Siakam had slapped him twice on the drive, both raking Sengun across the arms while swiping at the ball, and then chopping him in the back as he spun.

Houston was robbed of a chance to force overtime, but they’re also tanking so who really lost out on the decision?

Three — Siakam willed the Raptors through a sluggish performance. Siakam was able to knife his way through the defence, finding lots of favorable matchups against the inexperienced Rockets, who were unable to contain him straight up. Siakam started slow, with lots of contact going uncalled in the paint, but he lobbied to the officials midway through the second quarter and was given the next three calls down on his drives. Even without the whistle, Siakam was still able to get to his spots. He didn’t use the midrange jumper as much since there was so little resistance at times, but Siakam did consistently make the right passes and trust his teammates despite an ice-cold shooting performance. He finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists even though he had little to work with.

Having played in every game since returning from COVID-19 in late December, and topping 40 minutes played in six of his last seven games, there is little sense in sending Siakam to New York for the last game of the regular season this weekend. He should be watching from home along with the other veterans.

Four — Thad Young’s value is the steadiness he brings. Since acclimating to his new team after the trade deadline, Young has been Nick Nurse’s insurance policy when games get wacky. The duo of Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa have been great this season, but they are still fundamentally erratic players who are prone to swinging wildly from night to might. Young is the dependable reserve that brings certainty. He’s in all the right spots defensively, he competes at a high level in his limited minutes, and makes unselfish plays on offense.

Young’s push in the second quarter was the start of the comeback, creating deflections on one end and making smart passes on offense — including a gorgeous give-and-go sequence with Siakam — to attack the very exploitable gaps in Houston’s defence. He also mixed in his own scoring with 14 points on eight attempts, mostly through his trusty lefty hook shot. Young was also huge in the clutch, following up a drive from Siakam for a putback and breaking the Rocket’s full-court pressure with a spinning hook to put the Raptors up four in the last two minutes. Young played the entire second and fourth quarters, which shows impressive endurance for the wily veteran.

Five — This was an opportunity not taken for some of the younger players. Scottie Barnes was having one of his worst games of the year but rallied for a strong finish with 12 points in the fourth quarter when he finally started to play within the flow of the offense. Achiuwa reverted to old habits with the way he forced his offense and was overwhelmed offensively against Sengun in the post.

The bigger missed chance was for the point guards, as Armoni Brooks and Malachi Flynn were completely invisible save for the times they chucked up contested jumpers or when they slipped up while trying to drive the ball. The only ones who took the chance were Justin Champagnie, who showed his renewed confidence in the corner three that had been one of his points of development at the G-League level, and reminded us of his knack for rebounding by holding off two bigger Rockets to win possession.

The other was Yuta Watanabe, who played the entire fourth quarter and hustled all over the place with two steals, three rebounds, and a breakaway dunk. Unfortunately, the lasting impression with Watanabe will be Jalen Green’s superhuman chasedown block, but it should be appreciated that Watanabe consistently plays with energy, which is especially appreciated on a night where other bench players floundered.

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