There was little more than a hair’s difference between these first and eight seeds during the regular season, and even though they and the Toronto Raptors are the only Eastern Conference teams to not be below .500 at any point this season and even though they were one of only eight teams in the league to have a winning record against teams above .500, the Washington Wizards might have been the least-fancied team going into this post-season even before Jodie Meeks flunked his drug test on the eve of the playoffs.
They have electric guards and Otto Porter, Jr., but much of the league thinks there’s a whiff of dysfunction about them and, well, let’s be honest: the Wizards’ real strength going into Saturday was that the Raptors had lost 10 consecutive Game 1s.
Of course, no playoff opponent in Raptors history has faced a bench like this one, either. No playoff opponent has had to spend as much time scheming to face a bench like this one; no playoff opponent has faced a Raptors bench capable of surprising like this one. Forty-two points? It’s not just the total; as Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said, it’s the way they went about accumulating them.
“One of the league’s best benches,” Marcin Gortat acknowledged. “Well, we didn’t expect (Delon) Wright to come in here, come off the bench and give them 18 or 20 points.”
Gortat wanted to see some videotape before saying much else. But that raises a question: what happens if a team does what it thinks it needs to do against this bench but it still responds? No Fred VanVleet? Wright almost doubles his season average and hits three of four three-pointers. Toss in one from Pascal Siakam and C.J. Miles not having one of those games? And, as Bradley Beal said, “DeMar (DeRozan) even made some threes in the fourth,” which probably sounds a little harsh but …
“There were a lot of guys who we didn’t expect to make those threes. They made them,” Beal continued. “You know, we live with those.”
“We have to be able to close out on point, close out on the catch, know who has the ball and which way to close out on them,” said Brooks. “Some guys can just flat out shoot and they don’t put the ball on the floor as well. We have to know that, understand that, make sure they get away from their strengths. We let a few of their guys that just can flat out shoot shoot a lot of threes.”
This loss might have seemed in the cards when Gortat was called for a foul on the, er, opening tip-off (“You don’t think your big will get a foul on the jump ball,” said Brooks) but the fact is the Wizards’ quicksilver backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and Brooks’ pre-series ‘x-factor’ (Markieff Morris) kept the Wizards in the game. It started to spiral when Mike Scott was whistled for a flagrant one less than two minutes into the fourth quarter – Kyle Lowry made both free throws, and on the re-possession Wright rolled in a driving reverse layup to give the Raptors a lead they’d never relinquish.
“I thought it was a playoff foul,” said Scott. “That’s what I thought … but, you move on.”
Live stream 41 Toronto Raptors games, over 100 other marquee NBA matchups, plus select playoffs and NBA Finals games.
Ah, but move on to what, exactly? You lock down Lowry and DeRozan for much of the game and, for the first time against the Raptors this season, you have your own transcendent star available in Wall. Wall goes a tepid 6-for-20 and hits all of one field goal in the fourth and comes up short in the crunch: missing a finger roll layup after a steal with the score 109-101; stealing the ball seconds later and missing a running shot thanks to Lowry’s best defensive play of the game: eschewing Beal who was open in transition, Wall charged to the hoop but Lowry got up in the air without violating Wall’s space. The miss was, effectively, the end of the night.
The Wizards were 8-for-231 from beyond the arc; the Raptors set a playoff record with 16 three-pointers. The Raptors had four more turnovers than the visitors, and Gortat said the Air Canada Centre – well, it’s a little different now than the last time the Wizards came in here in the playoffs and swept.
“They have an unbelievable crowd here,” said Gortat. “They’re loud. At some point you can’t hear your teammates standing next to you and talking to you. We do a lot of things on the fly; have to read our body language. A lot of times we were just reacting.”
Said Scott: “I thought we did it to ourselves. I know I have to be smarter with the balls. Turnovers and threes. That was about it. Everything else felt good. We had them and give credit to them … but we should have won that.”
Uh yeah. I’m not sure about that. Not sure at all. “We got Game 1,” said DeRozan. Which takes away the only edge the Wizards had, and really, doesn’t leave much to build on.