Analysis | Raptors close out home schedule with win over Rockets. They’ll finish no lower than fifth in the East


What a difference a few months makes.

Way back in October, which feels like several hundred years and many trials and tribulations ago, the Raptors began their NBA season by getting drilled 98-83 by the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena.

It was a complete face plant — “I remember sitting here that night saying, ‘We just didn’t handle the moment,’” coach Nick Nurse said this week — and set the tone for a miserable 2-10 home start for the Raptors .

To say things have improved since then is a vast understatement, and Friday’s windup to the home portion of the season was a perfect example.

After sleeping walking through much of the first half and trailing at one time by 24 points, the Raptors rallied to beat the Houston Rockets 117-115 and guarantee no worse than fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

Gary Trent Jr. hit a running layup to snap a 115-115 tie and give the Raptors their 22nd win in 31 games after that dubious start.

Fred VanVleet got a second straight game off to rest his sore right knee and OG Anunoby remained out with a thigh bruise, but the rest of the regulars dressed and played in the second-to-last game of the regular season. It might have been a night when they could have put their feet up and watched, but they’re players and wanted to play.

“You’ve got to kind of sense how you think guys are feeling. They want to play,” Nurse said before the game. “I think it’s an open, blank slate. We go to talk to them and I’m ready to go either way with how they feel. There’s not much discussion about it other than they want to play.

“Then I try to say things like, ‘Well then, don’t expect a lot of long stretches.’ And then I get, ‘Well, why not?’ They want to play. We’ll see what happens.”

No one played a ton, or in overly long stretches, because Thursday’s win over Philadelphia took a lot out of all the Raptors, physically and emotionally. But Pascal Siakam still managed to lead the way with 29 points, and Trent had 26 — in 39 and 37 minutes, respectively.

Houston's Jae'Sean Tate was denied at the rim by Chris Boucher, right, and the Raptors in Friday night's game at Scotiabank Arena.

“They were providing a lot of leadership and offence, obviously, and I was doing a lot of searching tonight, as you could tell, but got there in the end,” Nurse said.

The lingering effects of Thursday’s game probably had to do with a terrible start by Toronto, which shot just 22.2 per cent from the field in the first quarter and trailed by as many as 24 points in the first half to a Rockets team that brought a league -Worst 20-60 record into the game.

“It wasn’t the easiest game to get ready for tonight. There’s some human nature involved in here, right?” Nurse said.

Scottie Barnes finished with 16 points and was a physical presence at the rim all game, as he continues to star late in his rookie season.

“He’s supposed to be hanging on for his life and he’s not,” Nurse said of the 20-year-old. “He’s getting stronger each week as we go, and not running on smokes. He’s getting stronger, and that’s good because we’ve been in really tough games against really good teams at a really vital time. So that stuff is really important.”

It’s unclear who might play and who might dress in the final game. Nurse said this week that the plan is for Anunoby to play Sunday against the Knicks in New York. Anunoby has missed four games with the thigh injury after sitting out 15 with a fractured finger. He’s only played in five games since the February all-star break.

The absences and a deeper rotation than he’s used in weeks allowed Nurse to get a look at fringe players such as Armoni Brooks, who started, and Justin Champagnie.

Champagnie is not eligible to join the Raptors for the playoffs on his two-way deal, so Friday might have been the last chance for him to play before rejoining the Raptors 905 for the G League Eastern Conference final in Mississauga on Sunday.

“You guys know I’ve liked Justin from about Day 1 of Summer League,” Nurse said. “I think he’s got the mindset of the kind of player we like. I would imagine we’re going to see him around.”

Champagnie played seven first-half minutes and made a three-pointer, while Yuta Watanabe provided a huge spark and played the entire fourth quarter.

“I think that’s a pretty gutsy performance by him for not being out there for a long time,” Nurse said of Watanabe, who has only played four games since the middle of March. “And I thought he made some gutsy decisions — he tried to dunk one, took a game-winning three (which he missed), played very, very hard like he always does — so it was good.”

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