TORONTO — Fred VanVleet's return to action was a welcome sight for the injury-challenged Toronto Raptors on Friday.
VanVleet returned from a five-game absence because of a knee injury to lead the defending champions to a 122-118 victory over the Washington Wizards despite Bradley Beal's impressive 37 points for the visitors.
It wasn't the most convincing victory for the Raptors, who have won four in a row.
They led by as many as 18 points and surrendered 66 second-half points thanks to eight three-point jumpers by the Wizards. But it was an essential win, considering they lost three key players to injury in Detroit on Wednesday. Leading scorer Pascal Siakam (stretched groin), Marc Gasol (left hamstring strain) and Norm Powell (partially separated left shoulder) each are listed as out.
As a result, VanVleet felt the time was right for his return. He was rusty at time, but good enough for 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 33:38 on the court.
"It was very important," he said. "I was turning the corner anyway. But to have what three of our top six guys, it's not very fortunate for our ball club. I tried to get back out there and give our guys a better chance to win. I'd like to think I increased our chances of winning tonight regardless of how ugly it was.
"There's no magic pill for those guys to get better. We want them to take their time. We have got to band together and do our best given the circumstance."
Kyle Lowry led the Raptors with 26 points, and centre Serge Ibaka certainly stepped up in Gasol's absence. He checked in with 23 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of monster blocks in the first half. OG Anunoby added 18.
"We came out, and the ball was going in," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "We were flying around pretty good. We had 25 deflections in the first half, which is a huge number.
"But in the second half, we never got into a rhythm at either end."
Nurse decided to go with a small lineup in the absence of his key players. VanVleet started at point guard, and Patrick McCaw replaced Siakam.
"It's going to be a work in progress," Lowry said. "I think guys will continue to get comfortable every game. We have to continue to have guys step up.
"Having Freddy back definitely helped."
The Raptors jumped out to an early 11-5 advantage, led 40-23 after the first quarter, and were up 68-52 at the half.
The Wizards closed to within 96-85 after three quarters and roared back to tie the game 107-107 with under five minutes to play after Beal, Admiral Schofield and Ish Smith each hit three-point jumpers.
But McCaw and Lowry hit late three-pointers to put Toronto ahead 116-110 and provide some breathing room.
McCaw had the difficult assignment of guarding Beal.
"I know Beal had 37, but Pat was making it tough on him in some stretches during that game," Nurse said.
The Wizards lost for the ninth time in 11 outings. Smith finished with 26 points.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2019.
Tim Wharnsby, The Canadian Press