WASHINGTON – When the Toronto Raptors made their sweeping changes in the off-season a year ago it was because what they were doing on offence wasn’t working in the post-season.
It was to shift DeMar DeRozan away from feeling the burden of having to make every play, or score every time or even wanting to.
Cue the culture reset.
And through the 82-game regular season and a third of two playoffs games, everything was going so well – passing, cutting, shooting threes – that it was hard to consider what might happen if or when the new stuff didn’t work, or hit a rough patch.
They didn’t really hit any through the first six months of their transition away from hero ball.
Now we get to find out.
If the Raptors loss in Game 3 was what they looked like when they combined a slushy commitment to defence with a sloppy offensive approach and hints of DeRozan attempting to impose his will on a game, their 106-98 Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards Sunday night at Capital One Arena was what it can look like when another team has had eight days to study their tendencies, identify their weaknesses and try to exploit them.
With 7:44 left to play in the fourth quarter Toronto led by eight and you had to like their chances. They had endured a nearly-disastrous third quarter, where they had surrendered 40 points to the Wizards, engaging their crowd. They had survived giving up 15 points off 15 sloppy turnovers and they were finally getting some good production from their bench, which had been missing in action all series.
They were staring right in the face of a powerful opportunity – the chance to split with the Wizards home, and head back to Air Canada Centre with a 3-1 lead and a chance to close out Washington at home.
But they squandered it. They couldn’t meet the Wizards’ pressure with their own poise.
“We played frenetic,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “Down the stretch at some point we have to keep our composure and execute. We missed some shots we normally make … we turned down some good looks that we normally step into. But you have to give Washington credit, they played tremendously, they got into us, took us out of some things we wanted to do, but again, we have to keep our composure and play through whatever contact there is or perceived contact.”
They scored eight points in the next 7:44 – a measly three field goals. They watched as the Wizards were able to run out on their misses and convert on yet more turnovers – Toronto made 18 in Game 4 to bring the total to 37 for their lost Washington weekend. In surrendering a 24-8 closing run to the Wizards the Raptors shot 3-of-14 and this was not a case of missing good shots.
It felt like most of them were taken at the end of the shot clock, off balance, with no chance.
It was like watching a Raptors re-run staring DeRozan, chucking and forcing with everyone else watching. The Raptors’ leading scorer and all-star scored 35 points but it was a throwback performance. He was 10-of-29 and just 2-of-8 down the stretch with no assists and nothing that even looked like he might have thought getting an assist was a good idea.
People have speculated what it would look like if the Raptors reverted to old habits. Now they know.
“I had a lot of great shots in the paint that I took back and there were some late-game shots that I wish I could take back,” he said when asked about his late-game shot selection. “That’s just my mindset, being aggressive, wanting to win. Willing to do whatever it took to push it to a win, but with that came some bad shots that I will definitely understand next time.”
The unfortunate thing is enough things went well that the Raptors could have – probably should have – won the game. The bench, missing in action for the series so far without Fred VanVleet (who could be out a while with his separated shoulder) showed signs of life. They were on the court with Lowry to start the fourth quarter with the scored tied 80-80 and helped Toronto jump out to a quick 10-2 run.
Jakob Poeltl had his best game of the playoffs – faint praise maybe – but he played 24 minutes and scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and was excellent contesting Wizards guards Bradley Beal and John Wall on switches. Pascal Siakam had three blocked shots and had more bounce than in any other game in the series; Delon Wright had seven points and five assists even if he was guilty of turning down some good looks in the fourth quarter.
And while DeRozan deserves his lumps for his fourth-quarter showing, he was a big reason Toronto was up 50-41 at the half as he made a point of attacking the basket early. He got to the free-throw line 12 times in the first half and all those trips to the line helped Toronto control the tempo and keep the Wizards’ transition game in check.
“The first half we kind of kept them out of transition,” said Lowry, who finished with 19 points and five assists. “We got good shots and I think they were shooting 34 per cent. We were shooting 44 per cent. I think that is where we have to continue to focus, keep them out of transition and play our game. Just get shots and then get back in transition.”
But because they couldn’t close the deal they need to figure out why heading into Game 5 on Wednesday and now Game 6 – at least – back in Washington on Friday.
The book on the Raptors used to be force the ball out of their stars’ hands and benefit as either their supporting cast would fail to make plays or DeRozan and Lowry would force their offence anyway.
The Wizards tried that in Games 1 and 2 and Toronto picked them apart. In Game 3 and especially Game 4 they decided to switch as many screen-and-roll actions as they could. In doing so they were almost luring DeRozan – and to a lesser extent Lowry – into attacking one-on-one. They were staying home on their teammates, taking away easy passing lanes and open threes – Toronto was just 7-of-18 from deep – and being disciplined about not sending help.
As a result in the most important part of the game, and a pivotal moment in the series, the Raptors were stagnant. The ball wasn’t moving. They were an offence standing around, waiting for something to happen.
We all know how that story goes. We’ve seen it in so many post-seasons before.
How is it going to end this time?