TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors global ambassador arrived in good time for his team’s standard 7:30 p.m. ET start.
But either Drake didn’t get the memo about the 7 p.m. tip or he was on famous people time.
Either way he missed a hell of a first quarter, something never seen before at the Air Canada Centre. He missed the earliest blossoming of what fans in other cities with really good teams experience all the time – their team playing with supreme confidence, a sold-out building enjoying their controlled dominance – even believing in it.
This is a new concept for the Raptors so give it time.
Toronto is entering a brave new world. Having opened a playoff series at home with a win for the first time in the Dwane Casey era the team was playing a Game 2 without the added weight of looming failure, without the paralyzing fear of possibly going down 0-2.
Everybody now. Breathe. Enjoy the house money and play the game the way it’s meant to be played: loose and free.
For the benefit of Drake who missed it, this is what it looks like: Once struggling rookie OG Anunoby – at six-foot-eight and 240 pounds – getting low, stymieing Washington Wizards two-guard Bradley Beal on the dribble and forcing him into an awkward, fading two and a miss.
At the other end the Wizards forcing the ball out of Kyle Lowry’s hands and into those of an open Serge Ibaka (10 points, nine rebounds) who moves it to an even more wide-open Anunoby (nine points) who knocks down a corner three.
Or Jonas Valanciunas (19 points, 14 rebounds) reading the defence and calmly stepping into a wide-open three of his own.
Or DeRozan – who tied his career playoff high with 37 points (on just 23 shots) – pushing the ball in transition and forcing his way into easy baskets and reminding everyone that he’s still an offensive force even as the Wizards build their game plan around turning him into a play-maker, hoping the likes of Anunoby, Ibaka or Valanciunas can’t beat them consistently.
So far, so wrong. After their 130-119 win Tuesday night the Raptors will head to Washington to play Game 3 on Friday looking every inch the first seed and with a chance to push the No. 8 Wizards to the brink of elimination and – who knows? – paying John Wall and Bradley Beal et al back for their sweep of Toronto in the first round in 2015.
Whatever the final form the odds are now overwhelmingly in the Raptors’ favour: teams that win the first two games of an opening-round playoff series at home are 68-4 overall.
The water didn’t flow downhill uninterrupted for the entire night. Nothing can be that easy, not in Toronto. But that the Raptors were able – within the same game – both soar with confidence and then tie down a win when things got a little stormy might be even more satisfying.
“We understood they were going to come back and fight back,” said DeRozan. “We had to withstand that. Once they got back in close, we understood we had to buckle down, get some stops, and with them stops get out and get easy buckets. That’s what we did.”
With eight minutes left, a lead that had swelled to as much as 23 points had been whittled to five, but a quick spurt – a deep C.J. Miles (18 points, four threes) triple, a great chase-down block by Wright, a pair of scores by DeRozan and some brilliant defence by Ibaka, who was effective on switches and still managed three blocks in the paint – gave Toronto a 14-point lead with five minutes left and some breathing room.
And now they can head to Washington leading 2-0 in the series – a franchise first – and smelling victory, although the Wizards feel they will have something to say about that.
“No, I wouldn’t say [we’re in] trouble. Every series is different,” said Wall, who had 22 of his 29 points in the second half. Every year the playoffs are always different. Last year we were up 2-0 going into Atlanta and they took care of business on home court and we went down to Boston and were down 2-0 and came back home and took care of what we’re supposed to do at home. We have to definitely make adjustments, they’re a team that’s going to be hungry, probably, in a Game 3, trying take full advantage. We have to be a team that’s hungry, trying to take advantage of home court one game at a time.”
The Raptors did their part at the ACC. They shot 13-of-35 from three and are now 29-65 for the series. They shot 51.7 per cent from the floor while dominating the boards, 48-34.
And they had DeRozan delivering one of his (now) signature offensive games – timely scoring without sacrificing ball movement or leaving out his teammates and allowing the Wizards to focus only on him.
“DeMar is an unbelievable player, all-NBA, MVP-type calibre player,” said his running mate, Lowry. “He’s just grown as a player. Every year I’ve been with him he’s just continued to get better. He’s my friend: I don’t care. He still sucks as a friend, but as a basketball player he’s really good.”
While the game wasn’t quite over early, any idea that the Raptors would somehow fumble their good fortune after winning the opener – just the second time Toronto has won the opening game of a playoff series in 14 tries – was put to rest before a late-arriving crowd filled the building.
By the time Drake finally ambled to his seat Toronto was leading 44-27, setting a franchise playoff record for points in a quarter and proving that they were serious about setting themselves up for a long post-season run by being as efficient in the first-round as possible. The Wizards version? Two early touch fouls on both Wall and Beal opened the door for Toronto.
If there was area of concern in the early going it was a shaky performance by the second unit (by their lofty standards) who were a collective minus-60 on the night, and a curious three-minute cameo by Fred VanVleet, who came back from a shoulder injury suffered in the last game of the regular season, but looked far from his normal, steady self.
“He was tentative,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s courageous, he wants to play, he’s trying to play, he’s a tough kid, but you know, Mother Nature’s just telling him to take his time and let it heal a little bit more.”
But with DeRozan leading the way and contributions from all over the lineup the Raptors were able to take a 78-58 lead into the half.
The nervous points of the game first came late in the third quarter when the threes stopped falling and the Wizards elected to go with a super-small lineup featuring Ty Lawson – just recently signed after coming back from China – alongside Wall with Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Mike Scott.
It allowed the Wizards to spread the floor and attack the basket and cut the Raptors lead to 10 — 100-90 — heading into the fourth quarter.
The most encouraging sign of the night was how the Raptors responded when things got really tense down the stretch. You could feel the air leave the building as the Wizards kept nibbling away at the Raptors’ lead which was at its biggest with two minutes left in the first half.
By the time Wall hit a couple of free throws with 7:52 left Toronto’s lead was down to five.
But Toronto’s used to adversity. After building their lead by hitting three after three, the Raptors survived while shooting just 1-of-11 in the first 16 minutes of the second half. That one — made by Miles after the Wall free throws — was big as it moved the Raptors from the shadow of their own end zone. Then DeRozan scored his final eight points in the 19-4 run that allowed the building to relax again.
“We needed every point,” said Casey of DeRozan’s burst. “He showed offensive toughness, they were into him, they were doing a lot of switching, he attacked their feet. We figured that’s what they were probably gonna do and he did a good job of attacking it, attacking the blitzes early in the game … he did an excellent job of reading what the defence was doing to him and making ’em pay.”
Said DeRozan: “I just let the game come to me, flow of the game. I go based off that. These days, it’s not like I have to have the mindset of scoring 30 or 40 points. I go out there and play aggressive.”
It was what the Raptors needed in the moment. It allowed 19,800 Raptors fans to enjoy a home win in a way that was new, and different. This was a maturing team controlling nearly every aspect of an important game, even to the point where they could reel it back in when it was slipping away.
Casey was able to bring DeRozan out early to enjoy his handiwork. He got a hug from Drake on his way back to the bench. The global ambassador has been a Raptors fan since Day 1. He knows when he’s seen something special.