TORONTO — This isn’t the Toronto Raptors team that hadn’t won a NBA playoff opener in 17 years. Nor even the team that lost last season’s opener.
The Raptors proved that Saturday night when they opened the post-season with a solid 114-106 victory over the Washington Wizards, ending a woeful Game 1 losing streak that had stretched back to 2001 — and one the team had grown weary of hearing about.
"We got Game 1, as we should," DeMar DeRozan said. "We’ve been great at home all year, and that’s something we’ve worked for and gained that reputation from the beginning of the season, how we ended up playing at the end of the season, so we already had that in our minds. On home court, we’re supposed to win. That’s our mindset."
DeRozan, playing as much facilitator as scorer, had 17 points and six assists, while Delon Wright had 18 points, and rookie OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles scored 12 apiece. Kyle Lowry, who was battling a virus and coughed throughout the post-game press conference, finished with 11 points and nine assists for the Raptors.
John Wall had 21 points and 15 assists to lead Washington, while Markieff Morris added 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Bradley Beal finished with 19.
The Raptors had held the unfortunate league record for consecutive Game 1 losses — 10 — and had dropped all but one of the 13 previous playoff openers, beating Philadelphia in the second round in 2001.
Intent on ending the streak, Lowry had said the team’s approach was: "Our Game 1 is our Game 7."
But there was no sigh of relief after the win, said coach Dwane Casey. The Raptors, who earned the No. 1 seed after an historic 59-win season, have always had bigger goals in mind than this one game.
"It’s not a sigh. It’s a journey, it’s a marathon," Casey said. "Whatever it was that that first game was about, hopefully we got it off our back. But we’re not satisfied. We’re in this for the long run. We’re in a tough series against a very athletic, fast team, so we can’t, there’s not a sigh of relief."
The Raptors held an early 10-point lead against their eighth-seeded opponents, but the rest of the night was a scrappy back-and-forth affair. And when Toronto went into the fourth quarter with an 86-85 lead, it set up a thrilling final 12 minutes in front of a capacity Air Canada Centre crowd that included Drake, sitting courtside in a Humboldt Broncos hockey jersey.
"Playoff games are tough," Casey said. "A lot of times we find a way to win ugly. We’ve done it all year, it’s nothing new. Those guys always try to find a way to win.
"That goes to Kyle, he could have a terrible night but he’ll just make a winning play. When it got chippy there for a little bit, I liked it. I thought it was good. That’s the way playoff basketball is."
The teams battled virtually basket for basket before Miles drilled a three — to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd — with 6:28 to play that put Toronto up by five points. A referees’ review then disallowed an earlier Mike Scott basket (released after the shot clock), and then Lowry scored, and suddenly it was a nine-point Raptors lead with just over five minutes left.
A beautiful series of passing led to a three-pointer by Wright with 3:31 to play, and gave the Raptors a 12-point lead. Then, with the white-clad crowd on its feet, Lowry found Serge Ibaka for a dunk with 1:42 to play, all but sealing the victory for Toronto.
There were numerous positive signs in the win that weren’t there last season. The team stuck by the ball-sharing that won them games all season. Casey used an 11-man rotation, and the team’s coveted bench, which has been so big all season, outscored Washington’s 42-21, despite missing Fred VanVleet (shoulder).
"We knew they were going try to take out DeMar and Kyle, they had 15 assists between them, so we were prepared for that," Casey said. "Other than that, we were just trying to find energy, speed, and quickness to match theirs. Guys played their role. It’s the same role they played all year … but as long as those guys are producing the way they are, why should we change our rotation?"
After getting badly outshot by Cleveland in last season’s playoffs, Casey made three-point shooting a focus this season, and Saturday they shot 16-for-30 from beyond the arc. Miles, acquired last summer for his long-range shooting, led the way with four, while Wright and Ibaka had three.
"They are a good team," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, about Toronto’s sizzing three-point shooting. "They are a No. 1 seed for a reason, they have a lot of good players."
And Anunoby, who Casey calls an "old-head rookie," showed no rookie jitters in his playoff debut, a huge plus for the rest of this playoff run.
While the Raptors had tired of the Game 1 curse talk, Miles said opening a series with a win in general means plenty.
"I think the biggest thing is starting off on the right foot, protecting your home floor. The first step in the journey," Miles said. "The biggest thing is to get a good foot forward. Guys understanding what we’re trying to do. Understanding that the game plan our coaches are putting in front of us is going to work. It just builds confidence in every single thing down the line."
A leaky roof delayed the start time by five minutes while officials met to determine whether the court was safe. An arena staffer dashed onto the court with a towel throughout the game. The storm also closed "Jurassic Park" — or Maple Leaf Square — where thousands of fans traditionally congregate to watch the game on the big screen outside the ACC.
Anunoby scored eight points in eight minutes to lead the first-quarter charge, and his putback layup put Toronto up by 10 points just four minutes into the game. But the Raptors’ double-digit lead was shortlived and they led 28-23 after one.
Jakob Poeltl’s alley-oop midway through the second made it an eight-point Raptors lead, but a 13-0 Wizards run gave the visitors a five-point lead. Washington went into the halftime break with a 59-55 advantage.
DeRozan had 12 points in a third quarter that saw neither team lead by more than five points.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Toronto then the series heads to Washington for Game 3.