TORONTO – Balance. That’s what the Toronto Raptors were seeking.
They’ve been looking for it all season.
Not necessarily in any higher-minded sense, although who knows what kind of powwow went on behind closed doors after head coach Dwane Casey referred questions about his club’s hesitation to take open shots down the stretch against the Washington Wizards in Game 4 to their team psychologist.
No, it was finding the right mix between the egalitarian offence they’ve fostered all year and having horses DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry make the Wizards pay for leaving them to attack one-on-one coverage.
It was finding the right mix between playing a tough, high-energy brand of defence while staying cool and collected with the ball at the other end.
They had in Game 2, the prettiest game they have had in their first-round series with Washington, and it finally arrived late in their 108-98 Game 5 win, which went down as the grimiest, closest slugfest of a game the two teams have played thus far.
It came in the form of Delon Wright, who came off the bench to deliver 18 points – 11 in the fourth quarter – as the rest of the Raptors stepped up at the exact moment they splintered in Game 4.
It came in the form of Jonas Valanciunas (14 points, 13 rebounds) who saw fourth-quarter minutes for the first time in the series and provided rebounding heft, screening and some key scores, making the Wizard pay for playing small. His offensive rebound and putback put the Raptors up by 10 with 1:30 left as the Raptors finished with a 14-5 run over the last 4:45.
The result will be a trip to Washington for Game 6 Friday night with a chance to close out a tenacious and talented Wizards team and advance to the second round for the third straight season.
DeRozan got them there and his teammates finished the job.
Though he only scored two of his game-high 32 in the final period, Toronto needed all 30 of those points in a game where offence was otherwise hard to find. However, as they had seen in their dispiriting Game 4 loss, it wasn’t fair to rely on him alone.
His teammates saw their own shortcomings and made sure he didn’t have to go it alone down guts of the game this time. In Washington it felt like DeRozan was in a bar fight without backup. At home the Raptors had strength in numbers.
“DeMar has been doing it all year,” said Lowry, who finished with 17 points, 10 assists and three steals in his best all-around game of the series so far. “He’s been facilitating for us all year. He’s been getting in the paint, kicking it out. He had five assists [tonight, but against Washington] he’s been more aggressive, offensively. Which we need him to do.
“[But] I think the end of the game, if you look at it, JV’s in there and he played great offensive and defence. Myself and C.J. [Miles are] out there spacing the floor. And Delon, when he plays aggressively and assertively and shoots the ball, he kind of gives us different spacing.”
This entire season has been about sharing the load but that broke down late in Game 4 and raised questions about Toronto being able to distribute responsibilities under pressure. It broke down in Washington with the Raptors up eight with 7:44 to play.
At home, trailing by five with 8:52 to play, DeRozan was able to step back as his teammates stepped up.
“We understand each other’s capabilities,” said DeRozan who had 32 points but attempted only four of his 24 shots in the final 8:32. “When guys line up out there, [we know] what we’re all capable of doing offensively, defensively. It showed tonight. Everybody stepped up. Delon stepped up big. With C.J. out there, he spaces the floor tremendously. You’ve got to worry about a knockdown shooter like him. We just exploited everything individual-wise that we could do.”
Toronto shot 46.3 per cent from the floor and 11-of-21 from three. Turning the ball over just 10 times helped make up for giving up 14 offensive rebounds to six of their own as did holding the Wizards to 41.1 per cent shooting for the game.
The Raptors had reason to fear this version of the Wizards they had on their hands. The last time they were at Air Canada Centre Toronto looked to be a team in control of their first-round series. They looked like a confident No. 1 seed ready to dispatch a lowly No. 8. Get a split in Washington and Game 5 could have been a chance to become the second Eastern Conference team to advance.
No such luck as the Raptors were swept in DC. Coming home the Raptors had the feel of a team on their heels, in part because the indifferent, inconsistent Wizards of the regular season that had slid down the conference standings with Wall missing 41 games with injury and persistent questions about team chemistry seemed long gone.
Not surprisingly, the Wizards feel like they’re still in a good position. They have to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road, but being up five at the ACC in the fourth quarter after a tough shooting night leaves them encouraged rather than spooked at the thought of an elimination game Friday.
“We feel like we let one slip away,” said Wall, who had 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, but seven of the Wizards’ 18 turnovers. “They made bigger shots at the end of the game … [but] shoot 41 per cent and 5-of-26 from three and still have a chance to win on the road you can’t ask for nothing more.”
How confident are they of coming back for Game 7?
“I like our chances,” said Wall. “We’re very confident.”
Winning will do that. Washington has been in the playoffs four of the past five years, were a Game 7 loss away from the Eastern Conference final last year and swept the Lowry-DeRozan-Casey Raptors in a first-round upset just three years ago.
No one has ever questioned DeRozan’s confidence. As one of the three Raptors still on the roster from the Washington sweep there is no doubt this one is personal.
But finding a way to give his team what they need without impeding the greater whole is a dance he’s been doing all season. In Game 4 with 29 shots and the highest usage rate of his career, he stepped over the line.
In Game 5 the Wizards were daring him to score and he did – but on his terms. His 30 points through three quarters allowed the Raptors to lead by one at the half and one at the end of three quarters.
“I thought he took what the game gave him,” said Casey. “I don’t think he forced anything, I don’t think he was trying to do too much. He was in the paint, it was in the shot spectrum, so I thought he did a good job in those situations of getting to where he wanted to go with the basketball.”
The Wizards want him to be the focus of the offence, to get lost in his own game, but after being lured into it in D.C. DeRozan struck the right balance in Game 5, toggling back and forth between scoring when there was no better option and then allowing his teammates to help him get it over the finish line.
Balance can take different forms. Ideally it would be there on every possession, all game long, but that’s not the Wizards’ game plan.
“We just want him to be a volume shooter,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “He’s taking a lot of shots … [but] he’s getting to the spots that he likes and we have to do a better job of challenging those … he’s hard to guard.”
And the Raptors are even harder to guard when DeRozan is just one option among many.
Balance? How about DeRozan getting the Raptors through three quarters and his supporting cast taking over from there.
It worked perfectly in a must-win at the ACC and after five games the balance of the series has shifted in the Raptors’ favour.