Watson, Watanabe set career-highs, lead Raptors to second-straight win

by Holly MacKenzie

Paul Watson Jr. got his first NBA start on Friday. You could say it went pretty well. In a 113-102 Toronto Raptors victory against the Orlando Magic, Watson dropped a career-high 30 points on a red-hot 10-for-13 field goals, including 8-for-11 three-point field goals in just 26 minutes.

“He got on one tonight,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said.

Watson’s career night came in just his second game since returning to the lineup following an 11-game absence due to being in the NBA’s health and safety protocol.

“It was certainly nice,” Nurse said. “He’s put in a lot of work. He’s had a tough go of it as of late, missing some games. But came right back into form, obviously.”

Toronto began the second half trailing Orlando by four. After scoring seven points in the first half, Watson erupted in the third, scoring 20 of his 30 points in the quarter. He outscored the entire Orlando team, 20-19 in the quarter as he helped Toronto build a 15-point lead heading into the fourth. Toronto would never trail again.

Watson wasn’t the only Raptor to set a new career-high on Friday. Yuta Watanabe also lit up the scoreboard, finishing with 21 points in 27 minutes off the bench. Watanabe shot 7-for-11 from the floor, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc, and made both of his free throw attempts. He also added six rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot.

“I’m really happy for that guy,” Watson said of Watanabe. “He works hard. He works really hard. He's always one of the first guys at the gym and last to leave. He definitely earned tonight. I’m really happy for him. I’m really proud of him. And it’s only up from here for him.”

While Watson was quick to heap praise on Watanabe’s night, Watanabe decided to have a little fun with his teammate when he was asked about Watson’s career-high.

“I’m really actually mad at him,” Watanabe said with a grin. “That was supposed to be my night. He stole it from me. No, I'm kidding. I'm very happy for him. I’ve been seeing him working out a lot so I’m really happy for him.

“We’ve been through the same thing,” Watanabe continued. “I know Paul was a two-way [contract player] last year, and this year I’m a two-way. We’ve been through the same thing. I’m really happy to see him succeeding on the court. And I think he’s feeling the same way.”

Though Fred VanVleet returned to the lineup after missing the previous seven games, the Raptors rotation was missing a few key players on Friday. With Kyle Lowry (rest), Pascal Siakam (rest), OG Anunoby (rest), Gary Trent Jr. (sore ankle) and DeAndre Bembrey (right hamstring) all missing in action for Friday’s game, there were plenty of minutes up for the taking. Watanabe and Watson weren’t about to let the opportunity pass them by. 

“I feel like we are a lot of under the radar guys,” Watson said. “[We] just continued to stick with it, didn't really listen to what anyone else had to say about our process or our path, just stayed focused and had tunnel vision and stuck to the grind. I feel like it definitely is showing and we’re getting opportunity and we’re definitely taking advantage of it.”

Though the Raptors had half of their usual starting lineup out of uniform on Friday, their presence was felt -- emphatically -- on the sideline. With each Watson and Watanabe bucket, their teammate got louder and more animated from the bench, jumping up to celebrate their teammates.

Getting to be the one doing the scoring as his teammates cheered him on was special for Watson.

“It feels good just to see how much fun they were having with it,” Watson said. “Just having that support out there, you give those guys the same energy when they’re out there on the floor. It feels good to see them being happy for me. Honestly, they were probably going crazier, being happier than I was.”

That support from his teammates is nothing new for Watson.

“K-Low has helped me ever since I stepped foot into this organization, as well as Freddy [VanVleet],” Watson said. “Teaching me the game, I may have made a mistake or could have done something better here or there, he’s always helping, trying to get me into the right spots to be successful. He’s one of the best vets out there, one of the greatest Raptors of all time. He knows his stuff. He's a six-time All-Star, a great guy and he’s helped me tremendously.”

Another thing that has helped the Raptors of late has been extra time in the gym following the trade deadline. In addition to dealing with a new home base in Tampa this season, the team also has had its challenges with injuries as well as players in and out of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Getting back to the basics has helped to create some normalcy in a season that’s been anything but.

“I think it did get frustrating for a time,” Nurse said. “But then it comes to a point where you’ve kinda gotta decide that you’re going to start having fun a little bit and keep working. We’ve been on the court a lot since the trade because we’ve got new guys and we kind of, out of necessity, need to be there. We’ve found guys are very attentive and studious when we’re practicing and in the film room, you can see the way they’re playing hard and playing together.”

You can see the guys on the bench, there's a really good team thing going on here right now and it is fun,” he said. “It’s good to see. Coaches work really hard with these guys that sometimes you don't see out there on the floor. They work and work and work and work to be able to do this stuff once they get a chance like this.”

Nurse shared that the locker room erupted in a roar when Watson entered after finishing his walk-off Television interview. Watson said he would decompress from his big game by going home to finish the night by watching videos on YouTube.

Most important was that the team picked up another win.

“My focus was just on finishing the game out and trying to secure a W,” Watson said. “Just trying to get as many wins as we possibly can, see where we finish out and see where we can go from there.”

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