Jonas Valanciunas joked that the last time he went to the line as much as he did he was probably 13-years-old.
Valanciunas went 16-of-18 from the free-throw line and scored a career-high 24 points to go with 10 rebounds as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Washington Wizards 88-78 on Wednesday.
“From the start I was a new guy in the NBA, didn’t know a lot about it and there’s a big learning process during every game,” said Valanciunas, who admitted he’s starting to get more calls from refs around the league. “I was not talking to (the officials), not complaining about calls, maybe that helped me.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey has started seeing growth in his rookie, who picked up a career-high five blocks in Monday’s loss to Detroit.
“The physicality of the game doesn’t bother him any more,” Casey said. “Where before he’d kind of disappear a little bit, now JV is huge at the end of the games, you can go to him, he can make free throws, he can pass the basketball, most of all he can defend without fouling and I think that’s huge for him too.
“That growth on his part has been huge.”
DeMar DeRozan had a game-high 25 points for Toronto (28-47), which snapped a two-game slide after being eliminated from the playoff chase with the 108-98 home loss to Detroit.
John Wall had 20 points to lead the short-handed Wizards (28-47), who announced before the game that rookie standout Bradley Beal will miss the remainder of the season with a right leg injury.
The Raptors entered the fourth carrying a 68-62 lead thanks in part to solid free-throw shooting from Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry, who had nine points, eight boards and 13 assists in the game.
DeRozan drained a deep two late in the fourth, stretching the Raptors lead to 84-74, and Toronto held on for the win.
The Raptors are second in the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage following the all-star break at 81 per cent. Toronto finished Wednesday shooting 75 per cent from the line.
Trailing 50-39 at half time, Toronto used an early 12-4 run to pull to within two.
“We did not come out with any focus,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman. “That’s where this group has to, on the road, put a team away. To be up 11 at half time and then go through the motions in those first three minutes, let them back in it. We need that killer instinct, and we have not shown it.”
DeRozan put down a one-handed dunk on Nene, picking up the hoop and the foul.
Then Valanciunas, who led all scorers at the half with 13, took care of Nene defensively with a one-handed swat on the six-foot-11 forward.
DeRozan pulled Toronto to within one putting a lay-up off the glass plus the foul, and Quincy Acy completed the comeback with a one-handed dunk.
“It definitely felt good,” DeRozan said. “That was frustrating. We let teams jump out on us like that and then we got to fight our way back. We know we got to play like we did in the second half for 48 minutes.
“That’s embarrassing when a team gets up on you on your home court.”
Toronto opened the game on 6-0 run and led for much of the first period, but Trevor Ariza capped off a 6-0 Washington run with a three-pointer to put the Wizards up by one, 24-23, after the first.
Rudy Gay, who drained a season-high 34 in the Raptors’ loss to Detroit, finished with six points and eight rebounds. Casey said afterwards that Gay was reduced to just 24 minutes because he twisted his ankle.
Landry Fields, who went to Los Angeles for follow-up tests on his right elbow Monday, was the beneficiary of added minutes as a result of Gay’s injury. Fields appeared in 17 minutes, scoring three points.
Notes: Beal, the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft out of Florida, averaged 13.9 points, 3.8 assists and 2.4 rebounds this season.