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Raptors look to put history behind them with new style

TORONTO — Over the next 48 hours, as the Toronto Raptors prepare to open the playoffs against the Washington Wizards, there will be a lot of talk about the past, about a cursed April-May history for this franchise.

Did you know that Washington swept Toronto in the first round three years ago? And that, while the teams are largely different today, the principal players remain the same?

Have you been made aware of the dozen times Toronto has played the first game of a playoff series, and how a whopping 11 of them, including the last 9 consecutively, have not gone well at all?

Has someone mentioned how finishing among the Eastern Conference’s top regular season teams over four straight springs has produced only three playoff series wins for these Raptors of Toronto? And how their currently projected playoff path goes right through the two teams — Washington and the Cleveland Cavaliers — who ended their last three seasons?

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Indeed, that history is evident and damning. Everyone remembers it and it won’t ever change. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t sold on the narrative.

“I think I just get to a point to where I don’t understand it,” a perplexed DeRozan said, when asked for his thoughts on the public perception of the Raptors as a team that wins at will right up until they really need to. “You can always pick the negative things out of the positive things we’ve accomplished. I just don’t pay no mind to it. We had a great season.”

Here’s the other way of reading it. Toronto has the fourth-highest winning percentage in basketball over the last five seasons, and have won the third-most playoff games over the last two, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland, the NBA’s most recent champions.

The Raptors are the only group to finish top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency this year, winning more games than every team but the Houston Rockets during a season in which no one picked them to even win their division. They were a top-five team in assist to turnover ratio, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. They set a franchise record for wins. No team protected home court better.

They did it all while playing a completely new style of basketball few outside the organization thought they could actually pull off. They did it while putting up almost six more assists per game and nearly 10 more three-point attempts. Of their 22 losses, 15 were by six points or less.

That’s why DeRozan doesn’t get it. He looks around his dressing room and sees a team that should be perceived as one of the most dangerous in the playoffs — not a first-round upset in the making.

“I mean, we did it for 82 games. We won 59 games. If that’s not the ultimate understanding that what got us here wasn’t a fluke, that it really worked,” DeRozan started, literally scratching his head as he trailed off. “I think that speaks for itself. We know what works for us, what got us here, and what’s going to take us even further.”

So, that takes care of the distant history between Toronto and Washington. Things are different now. But what of the recent?

Well, that sample’s somewhat flawed, too. While the Raptors and Wizards split their season series, 2-2, there were plenty of weird wrinkles that had an effect on each game.

The most glaring and influential is that Wizards star John Wall didn’t play in any of the four contests. He’s had a disappointing year and missed nearly half the season due to left knee issues that eventually led to surgery. He returned in late March, and played in only four of Washington’s final seven games.

But when he’s on, Wall is Washington’s best playmaker, opening up even more opportunities for Bradley Beal, who carried much of the offensive weight in Wall’s absence, and was terrific in all four games against the Raptors. Simply put — Toronto hasn’t seen what the Wizards look like with Wall in the lineup in more than a year.

And Toronto was without plenty of regulars themselves. Kyle Lowry was ejected early in the second quarter of the first meeting between the two teams. Delon Wright missed the second game entirely, while Jakob Poeltl played only 10 minutes. Fred VanVleet and CJ Miles were inactive for the third meeting, while OG Anunoby sat out the fourth.

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In all four games, Toronto put up 20 assists or less, something that happened only 22 times this season. In both Raptors losses, Toronto shot fewer than 30 three-pointers, which happened only 19 times. In one of those games, Toronto hit only five times from distance, their lowest total of the season.

None of the four games truly reflected what either team does at its best. It’s actually fitting that the season series was a split, because neither side can take much away from it.

What we do know is how these two teams played over the bulk of the season. That Toronto was far better in practically every statistical category worth mentioning. That the Raptors never lost more than two games consecutively, while the Wizards come in having lost 9 of their last 12, and 14 of their last 21. That the Raptors finished the season with a 7.6 net rating (third-best in the NBA) while the Wizards ended up at 0.7 (16th).

It’s clear which team is better, has been better, and should be better in this series. Sometimes history is just that — history.

“I think it’s a whole new dynamic for us. I think that’s the beauty of this weekend,” DeRozan said. “Understanding we’re going to have to come out and compete at the highest level. We’ve got to be better than what we’ve been all season, and we all understand that. We know they didn’t have John a couple of them games, but with that, it don’t matter — we’ve still got to go out there and play at a high level that we know we can play.”

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April 13, 2018

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