TORONTO — The Raptors have changed. You may have heard some reference made to it, somewhere.
Culture reset. Shoot threes. Share the ball.
But the Washington Wizards were skeptical.
Would the ‘new’ Raptors show up for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series? Would they behave like the team that won a franchise-record 59 games and earned the No. 1 seed in the East?
Washington’s defensive game plan Saturday night was—pretty much—’Yeah Raptors, but let’s see you do it in the playoffs’.
The 19,800 who braved an ice storm that caused a brief delay as the Air Canada Centre roof leaked—pathetic fallacy I think they called it in English class—had to be wondering too.
The Raptors—0-5 at the Air Canada Centre in Game 1’s in the Dwane Casey era and 1-12 in Game 1’s played anywhere in franchise history—usually don’t have the roof fall in on them until the second quarter or something.
But then the ball went up and the Raptors played like it was a Tuesday night in February—very well, in other words.
The Wizards predictably forced the ball out of the hands of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. They predictably left unattended potential weak perimeter-shooting links like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright. They were gambling the Raptors’ impeccable regular season habits would unravel under pressure and the Raptors stars would either force their offence or the supporting cast would fold under the pressure to make plays.
And why not? This was Game 1 at the Air Canada Centre and the Raptors were favoured.
Their Kryptonite, in other words.
But not this time, not on this night. For the first time in Lowry and DeRozan’s career they will be trying to go up 2-0 in a series, an opportunity that comes their way on Tuesday night.
“Whatever that first-game [curse] was about, hopefully we got it off our back,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I think you guys made more out of it than anything else. We just have to go out and do what we do. Eighty-two games is a good sample size of who we are.”
But now they know it can hold up in in the playoffs. With the Raptors 114-106 win Toronto not only slayed their metaphorical Game 1 monkey, they did it their way.
No possession better typified what the Raptors changes in approach were all about than one with just over three minutes left in the game. The Raptors kept moving the ball, penetrating to pass and giving up good shots for better shots until Lowry, the Raptors’ best three-point shooter, hit Wright—a suspect three-point shooter for most of his young career but three-of-four under the playoff gun Saturday—so he could knock down his third triple in four attempts to give Toronto a 10-point lead.
It came after a 10-0 run that had given the Raptors a lead. Lowry and DeRozan scored points as Toronto won the final period 28-21 after leading by 86-85 at the end of the third. Lowry and DeRozan were outscored by the rest of their teammates by 22-6.
Everything the Raptors set out to accomplish with their off-season stylistic makeover was on display for the world to see.
The Raptors put up and made threes—16-of-30 on the night; shared the ball—26 assists spread among nine players; and did it without putting the load on their all-stars, who combined for 28 points and just 26 shot attempts. Depth? The Raptors were without second-unit spark plug Fred VanVleet, but no worries, they got 18 points and four assists from Wright.
“We’ve been playing that way since training camp, pounding and pounding every single day, every shoot-around. Every time we’re on the court we pound that style of play,” said DeRozan, who finished with 17 points and six assists while contributing a pair of threes. “And guys know where the shots are going to come from, we understand where to get our guys shots from. It’s second nature now.”
The Wizards signaled their intention early as they doubled Lowry out of a high pick-and-roll on Toronto’s first possession. Lowry made the right read and got the ball to a rolling Jonas Valanciunas, although Washington was able to get a hand in and deflect the pass.
The double teams kept coming but the Raptors adjusted. Twice more the Wizards sent two defenders at Lowry and then DeRozan and each time Valanciunas (9 points) scored on easy dump offs. Then it was Ibaka—who was outstanding with a 23-point, 12-rebound effort—who benefitted. A moment later Ibaka missed a lay-up but in the scrambled coverage Anunoby—who chipped in a welcome 12 points—was able to slide in for an offensive rebound.
“We knew that was how they were going to try to play us, especially K-Low and DeMar, they’re going to try to double them,” said Ibaka, who hit three triples and blocked two shots also. “I was just ready to find the open spot. You have to give those two guys credit—they did a great job to find us any time they had two guys on them.”
Toronto jumped out to a 22-13 lead and the Raptors’ two all-stars had contributed a grand total of one point. This was the kind of start of which someone in favour of a ‘culture reset’ could be proud.
“We invite the traps on us honestly; it kind of takes the pressure off us,” said DeRozan. “We’ll make the right pass and everyone else is going to make the right play, and guys did.”
The Raptors set a franchise record with their 16 threes and did while only getting one—on four attempts—from Lowry, who was third in the NBA in threes made this season.
C.J. Miles delivered with four threes on seven attempts, and while he’s the club’s designated marksman he came into the game having shot just 19 per cent from three in his previous two playoff appearances with Indiana. So that was no sure thing.
Even more unknown was how the Raptors youngsters would respond when left open—quite well was the answer as Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright, with no track record as three-point shooters before the season, combined to go six-of-10.
“There were a lot of guys who we didn’t expect to make those threes, they made them,” said the Wizards’ Bradley Beal. “You know, we live with those.”
What was most impressive was that the Raptors stuck with the plan even when things went a bit sideways. Toronto turned the ball over 17 times, gifting the Wizards 20 points. And they struggled to manage John Wall in transition in the second quarter as Wall picked them about for 10 of his 15 assists in the first half, six in the second quarter as Washington turned an eight-point deficit to 59-55 halftime lead.
“It felt great. Felt lovey-dovey. I was happy as a lark,” joked Casey about the half-time mood. “It’s one of those things, you feel the angst a little bit … [but] I thought we missed some easy plays, missed some easy shots in the first half, so nervous but not out of whack.”
The cause for nerves was legitimate. As No. 8 seeds go, the Wizards don’t fit the profile. A year ago they barely missed going to the Eastern Conference Finals after going seven games with Boston and they have won three playoff series in the past five years, including their four-game dismantling of the Raptors in 2015.
Injuries—shoulder and knee problems kept Wall to just 41 games—and chemistry issues suppressed the Wizards record (43-29 coming in) in a year when some projected them as a top-four team in the East, ahead of Toronto in the view of many. Their tendency to coast against bad teams—they were only 20-15 against sub-.500 teams while the try-hard Raptors were a league-best 39-2–didn’t help their cause either.
“The [seed] is the number because it has to be,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks before the game. “[But] we have a confident group. What does that mean? I don’t know [but] we played some of our best basketball against really good teams. If Toronto had a below-.500 record, I’d be really concerned.”
But now the Raptors have given him something even more daunting to worry about. After years of shrinking from their responsibilities as a top seed, the Raptors embraced them, using a style that gets the most out of their whole roster while making it easier on their stars—the plan all along.
The result was a win in Game 1 of a playoff series on their home court for the second time in franchise history and the first time in 17 years.
Stick around long enough and you’ll see everything twice.