Toronto Got the Bigs Going Early
Given that this was a huge game with a ton of pressure on the Raptors (which seems odd in a 1-v-8 matchup, but here we are) you might have expected Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to try and dominate from the opening tip.
Instead, we got just the opposite: The Raptors went to the frontcourt early and often.
The first three plays the Raptors ran went to Jonas Valanciunas (though John Wall blocked his shot), Serge Ibaka (who scored on a hook) and Valanciunas again (who scored a layup), all on pick-and-rolls with Lowry. After a Lowry 3-pointer missed, the Raptors went right back to JV, this time on a post-up, and he scored over Marcin Gortat on the baseline.
All the inside stuff opened up the spacing as the quarter went on, which, combined with the Wizards’ aggressive defense on Lowry and DeRozan, allowed OG Anunoby to get open looks on the perimeter (2-for-3 from downtown in the period). Ultimately the frontcourt combined for 21 points in the quarter, while the backcourt scored five.
As for Ibaka, he looked like he’d been waiting all year for this game. Every time the Wizards made a run he calmly knocked down a shot or grabbed an important defensive rebound; he finished with 23 points on on 11 shots (including 3-of-4 from downtown) and 12 boards. Playoff Serge is here!
A Wobbly Second Quarter Left the Crowd on Edge
The second quarter gave us some interesting matchups; it seemed like a bit of a feeling-out period for the coaches, Scott Brooks in particular.
Brooks started the quarter with Marcin Gortat and four bench players, opting to leave John Wall and Bradley Beal on the bench together. The Raptors started the second with the 5-man bench unit, with Norman Powell in place of the injured Fred VanVleet.
The Wizards cut the Raptors’ five-point lead to one almost immediately, but the Raptors got it back thanks to C.J. Miles finally finding his shot. A Delon Wright triple actually pushed the lead to eight, 39-31, before Washington’s starters came back.
The next thing you knew it was 46-41, Washington.
The stretch definitely felt like a typical Raptors game 1 stretch. They settled for quick shots (including one Miles contested 3-pointer with about 17 seconds on the shot clock), turned the ball over, and allowed too many easy baskets at the other end. Mike Scott dunked on Jakob Poeltl’s head; Beal hit a turnaround and-1 in the paint; Gortat (Gortat!) beat everyone down the floor to score a layup.
Thankfully, Playoff Serge (two blocks and two 3-pointers made in the final 4:10 of the half) settled things down a bit for the Raptors; still, a 36-point quarter for the Wizards and a four-point halftime deficit for the Raptors definitely left the crowd a bit deflated.
Culture Reset Over Everything
The culture reset is indeed real, and it was absolutely felt last night. We tend to think of the new-look Raptors as mainly employing a new offense, one that prioritizes ball movement, reduces wear and tear on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and forces Kyle and DeMar to trust their teammates more. Which it is, and more on that in a moment, but a big part of it also Dwane Casey trusting himself, and his players, to make adjustments when needed.
Casey’s definitely taken flak for being slow to adjust in the past; the best that was said about him was that he would effectively switch things up between games, but the knock on him was in-game, he wouldn’t do enough to change outcomes. But you can’t say that about him this season. All year long, he’s made adjustments, both in-game and between games; they don’t always work out (see the odd lineup that closed the final game of the season, for example) but he’s willing to try things and I respect that.
Last night, we had two prime examples. After Powell struggled a bit with the five-man bench unit in the second quarter, Casey opted not to go full Bench Mob in the fourth, leaving Kyle Lowry in to play with Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl. This was very reminiscent of the extremely effective Lowry+bench units of the past two seasons, and it was equally effective on this night.
And when Jakob Poeltl seemed a bit shook by the moment—the normally steady-handed centre coughed up two brutal turnovers late in the third—Casey cracked the glass on Emergency Playoff Bebe.
Lucas Nogueira. Coming in to a 1-point playoff game in the fourth quarter. And playing the next nine minutes... a stretch in which the Raptors were +8.
Casey trusted Bebe, ostensibly his 12th man, and it paid off.
There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument here: Does Casey trust his bench because they’re better than in the past? Or does the bench play better than in the past because Casey trusts them?
Either way—it’s worked all season, and it worked again last night.
Sorry Folks. Lowry and DeRozan Didn’t “Struggle”
It might be tempting to look at the boxscore and think, “oh, look, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan didn’t show up again.” 10-of-26 shooting combined isn’t ideal, after all.
But that would sell these two far short in this game.
Again, the culture reset was at work here. The trust that Lowry and DeMar have in their teammates is very real, and watching this game, you could see it. Other than a DeRozan forced 3-pointer when he was attempting to get the Raptors into a 2-for-1 situation, there was no point where I felt like either of them was pressing or forcing shots. They combined for 15 assists, passing out of traps confidently. They avoided dribbling into tough spots, and didn’t settle for mid-range looks.
Lowry only shot the ball nine times, but he didn’t need to shoot more. DeRozan made two 3-pointers (on five attempts), which doubles his 3-pointers made from last year. Yes, DeRozan did take four midrange jumpers (and missed them all) but they were good shots that came from the flow of the offence, the kind of shots you trust DeMar to take. Kyle’s defense on both Beal and Wall was sensational in the fourth quarter.
I realize that, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have detail any of the above when describing an All-Star backcourt. I realize the bar is low for Kyle and DeMar based on past playoff performances. But you can’t lump this one in with those bad games from the past. The pure numbers may not be there, but the leadership clearly was.
Was This Our Championship? Let’s Hope Not!
Because being a Raptors fan comes with built-in angst and anxiety, as soon as this game was over I started worrying about game 2. Specifically, that game 2 will be a letdown, after finally winning a game 1.
We’ve seen it before, when a team makes a valiant effort or pulls out an unexpected win in one game, only to come out flat the next game. Or teams that make a great run just to make the postseason and then the tank is empty in the playoffs. It’s like they put so much focus on the thing right in front of them that they don’t effectively prepare for the next.
This game 1 thing was a huge weight off the Raptors’ shoulders and I really hope exorcising that demon hasn’t left them feeling satisfied, or feeling that they’ve accomplished anything. It was a great, and much-needed, first step, but all they did was what they were supposed to do, as the top seed. The journey is just beginning.
The good news: This Raptors group is 4-1 in game 2s at home. Fred VanVleet should be back. And after that game 1 win, and hopefully some better weather, the game 2 crowd is going to be amped!
The Game 1 curse is done, the culture reset withstood the pressure of a playoff game, and the Raptors are up 1-0 in a series for the first time in forever. And there are four more quality playoff basketball games to come today! The weather may be bad, but today, life is good for Toronto basketball fans.