History is a huge factor here, obviously. The Raptors are 1-12 in Game 1s over franchise history, with the last one coming all the way back in 2001 — and that was a second round series! When it comes to first rounds, the team is even more shook.
Part of that is expectations: maybe a raucous crowd creates too much pressure, or the growing stage takes 48 minutes to get used to. Really, though, it’s an avalanche effect; the more the Raptors lose Game 1s, the more they think about losing Game 1s. I mean, look at some of these quotes coming out of yesterday’s practice!
“Our Game 1 is our Game 7 tomorrow.” - Lowry— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) April 13, 2018
'It's a phenomenon ... If we knew we could got to Wall Street or Bay Street and make a lot of money' -- Casey on Raptors Game 1 struggles at home.— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) April 13, 2018
You think the Game 1 “curse” isn’t at the top of their mind?
There’s no question that this opener will tell you a lot about how this series is set to go. If the Raptors come out loose and confident, holding home court in a win, they’ll rid themselves of any jitters and be able to carry that into something short and sweet (I still hold that it’ll be Toronto in five). If they lose? The questions get louder, the pressure gets heavier, and home court shifts to Washington for what will likely be a longer, more painful series.
Winning Game 1 shouldn’t be like winning a Game 7. For the Raptors, though, it’s certainly more important than Games 2, 3, or 4. It’s a game that will set the tone, and lord help us if that tone is muted.
Here are the game details, then we’ll get into the three keys.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 5:30 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Washington - John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat
Toronto - Fred VanVleet (shoulder - questionable)
Washington - Otto Porter Jr. (calf - questionable), Mike Scott (concussion - questionable)
Defend with intensity and strategy
Beyond possible injuries to Otto Porter and Mike Scott, the Wizards were also dealt a blow when Jodie Meeks was suspended 25 games yesterday for breaking the NBA substance abuse policy. This explains the Ty Lawson signing, but it still leaves Washington shallow and top-heavy (even more than usual) heading into the first round. Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre Jr. are really their only good bench rotation pieces left.
This means the Raptors need to set a tone in their defence of John Wall and Bradley Beal, who will have to carry even more offensive weight. Some combination of Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby will get the start, but Toronto has plenty of backcourt options to present different looks and skill sets. Fred VanVleet (if he plays), Delon Wright, and even Norman Powell can try to throw the two All-Star Wizards off their game.
Strategy here is important, as the Wizards primarily work their offence out of pick-and-roll sets. That means there’ll be onus on the Raptors bigs to force inefficient mid-range shots and protect easy drives to the rim. Washington is a great cutting team, and can get easy baskets once the defence breaks down.
In protecting against this, the Raptors need to show the defensive intensity that’s been more intermittent since the All-Star break. Reviving the attitude from March’s Houston game, or this month’s important win over Boston — scurrying around and defending on a string — is so important for Toronto to feed their offence with easy opportunities.
Iron out an effective rotation
With a ten-man rotation (stretched to 11 if Powell plays some defensive minutes), Dwane Casey has plenty of options at his disposal. That doesn’t mean, though, that every combination will be effective.
The Raptors have struggled in transitional minutes (time between the starters and their bench mob), especially when their opponent is demonstrative with pace of play. It would be great to see Casey be proactive in forcing the Wizards to make changes, and not the other way around. In prior matchups between Toronto and Washington, there’s been a lot of reactive moves to deal with Marcin Gortat. Finding a frontcourt combination that can defend him in the pick-and-roll and secure rebounds at the back end of possessions will be important.
The unsaid question there is: how much Jonas Valanciunas does this involve? There’s a need for Jonas’ offence in this series; how much he’s allowed to play is a big question mark heading into Game 1.
[Shia Leboeuf GIF]
Okay, we know the history with Game 1s. We know the tight sphincters and the first quarter runs from their opponents, as year after year the Air Canada Centre and Jurassic Park go dead with nervousness and fail to recover.
There’s no basketball reason for this continuing to happen. Toronto is a number one seed, they’re tied with Houston for the best home record, and they’ve defended their building with vigour all year long. The Raptors need to JUST DO IT. They need to win a damn Game 1.
There’s not even a 12:30 start excuse anymore, people! We have nothing left except the lame “refs hate us” conspiracy. Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and whoever else wants to step up need to send a message to Washington and the entire NBA. This year is different. It starts with Game 1.