Before the playoffs began, Masai Ujiri was asked how much playoffs influence his offseason decision-making. His response was succinct, "100 per cent, it influences everything in my opinion." Given that last night’s Game 3 was a must-win, a game where the Toronto Raptors needed and got maximum effort from everyone on the court, and still lost? It’s almost impossible now to say that this team will return intact for the 2015-16 season. Unless you believe in miracles, this series is over, and it’s time to look at where the tide turned on the Raptors.
For the Raptors, Game 3 was a summary of what’s led to their quick deterioration in the postseason. First, various injuries to Kyle Lowry have made him a shell of his former self. Last night, every shot Lowry took after the first quarter came up short. When probing in the lane offensively, he often settled before going up and deferred to a teammate. The Lowry of November and December is long gone, as he’s averaged just 15.4 points on 37% shooting since the All-Star break. We’ll find out soon whether it’s the back injury, a virus, or something else that’s made him so tough to watch down the stretch, but it’s been a massive factor in this series.
The other factor in the deterioration has been Toronto’s coaching adjustments. Coming into the series, Randy Wittman wasn’t shy in saying he’d use Paul Pierce at the 4 to stretch defences. Turns out, he had another, just as capable, shooter on the pine in Drew Gooden. Gooden and Pierce combined for seven triples in Game 3. We’ll remember Pierce’s more, a pair of daggers in the closing three minutes, but Gooden’s were just as costly.
In response to Washington’s strech 4 lineups, Dwane Casey has done very little. He’s stuck with lineups he deemed functional in March, all of which don’t include the team’s best individual defender and plus-minus hero James Johnson. Johnson wouldn’t be a cure-all in this series, but his playing just seven minutes in three games tells you all you need to know about Casey’s stubbornness on this issue.
In the end, this lack of ability to make adjustments has taken "effort" out of the question. The Raptors can shove, smack, and scream all they want - if they’re in a system that doesn’t work for their personnel, there’s no chance at success. Other NBA teams have figured out that the Raptors are in a defensive system that gambles too much. As a guy whose pedigree was on that end of the court, the Game 3 loss could be the last straw for Casey as Toronto’s head coach.
The Raptors are also truly lacking in veteran leadership. Lowry and DeRozan make a great bromance, but neither has the intangible swagger that comes with playoff experience. DeRozan is an especially frustrating case. After writing "Fuck it, let’s get it" on the white board for his team, he then admitted this after the game.
DeMar on tech for shoving Otto: "I just dont like nobody talking trash to me. I dont say nothing to nobody. They shouldnt say nothing to me"— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 25, 2015
That dichotomy between locker room and on-court leadership isn’t so wide on the Wizards. Say what you will about how much talk Washington has done in this series, but the addition of Paul Pierce has done a world of good for their collective egos. Pierce has had some impact on the court, but before this series his leadership was better served off it. Bradley Beal, John Wall, Marcin Gortat - these are all players that got swallowed up last year by an Indiana team that had a similar burgeoning swagger to what the Wizards are carrying this year. Pierce is part of the reason behind that.
Should the Raptors go after a player like Paul Pierce? That’s for Masai Ujiri to decide, but a veteran to help advance the games of Lowry and DeRozan could be the key to taking the next step. At the very least, if Ujiri is making all his decisions based on postseason performance, the man will be very busy over the next five months.
What are your thoughts after last night's loss? What changes do you see coming to this roster?