Yuta Watanabe returned to the field for the Toronto Raptors in style Wednesday night.
With just under 11 minutes left of the fourth quarter, and with the Raptors trailing behind the Memphis Grizzlies by one, Malachi Flynn rushed to the corner to try to contest a Dillon Brooks three. Brooks waited patiently for Flynn to fly past, and then he jumped along the baseline into the paint and got up after a two-handed hammer.
Except it never came.
Suddenly there was Watanabe, cloud to meet him at the top despite being fresh on a calf injury that had kept him on the sidelines since the preseason. However, it was impossible at that moment (and in fact all night) to tell that he had ever been limp – the power and strength of his execution was breathtaking, and he managed to prevent the thump with only one outstretched hand.
“I told you so,” Watanabe said during the Raptors’ post-game. “I jump anytime. If I have the chance 100 times, I jump 100 times. That’s what I do.”
Originally, the game was ruled as a mistake on Watanabe, but Raptors head coach Nick Nurse immediately challenged the call, and when officials went to review, it was clear the block was clean.
“I mean, thank God the coach challenged the call and we won it,” Watanabe added. “But it’s something I can bring to the team – bustle, energy, stuff like that.”
While stopping Brooks cold in the air deservedly will get top-notch at all the highlights, it was not even the former Grizzly’s first rejection of the game. He had already shown his defensive instincts during his first stint in the game when he knocked a Tyus Jones floating attempt away after splitting two defenders to penetrate the paint.
“[It was] good to be back here, ”Watanabe said. “Good to play against my old teammates. Everything was perfect tonight.”
Of course, this is not the first time Watanabe has made a dramatic defensive play for the Raptors (or tried to play) on the edge. Last season, he jumped straight into a child burner against the Orlando Magic to send back center Nikola Vucevic. He also tried, now quite infamously, to block the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, even though it didn’t go quite so well.
Yet Watanabe’s fearlessness and legitimate acumen to protect the rim are part of what makes him such a likeable character, and what makes his role on the Raptors (which is lacking when it comes to backline defense) so important.
“If I have more chances in the future,” Watanabe said, “I will definitely jump again, and no matter what happens, I will just keep busy and keep bringing energy to the team.”