It Can Never be Easy With This Franchise, Can It?
The goal after a game like this, both for the team and for fans, is not to overreact. All the Wizards did was what they’re supposed to do, after all! But this loss was a bad one, and it has understandably shaken some of the confidence the fanbase had in this Raptors team.
As fans, we’re used to it; this franchise has just never done it the easy way. The Raptors have only ever won four playoff series; they trailed them all, 2-0, 1-0, 1-0, and 2-1.
At least the Raptors are actually ahead this time! The Wizards still have to win three of four games, and they’ve only won four of their last 15. Stress levels should remain low.
Still, I think I can speak for all of Raptors fandom when I say that, even if we didn’t really expect it, a sweep of this Wizards team—a little revenge for 2015—would have been extra sweet. Even though the Raptors are in the driver’s seat, there is a huge sense of disappointment (and even a little bit of worry).
The Wizards’ Centres Showed Up. Toronto’s? Nope.
There was much speculation about whether or not Mike Scott would replace Marcin Gortat in the Wizards’ starting lineup. He didn’t, but sometimes it’s the moves you don’t make that work out best; in this case, it seems like the speculation itself woke Gortat up, because he had his best game of the series: 16 points (on 8-of-10 shooting), five rebounds and only two personal fouls.
You know who else showed up? Ian Mahinmi! After being an invisible man in the first two games, Mahinmi had six points and three blocks in 11 minutes! He even stripped Norman Powell on the perimeter!
On the other end, Jonas Valanciunas was fine in the first half, at least on offense, hitting a three and scoring on a couple of nice lay-ins. But overall he just didn’t seem able to get deep position like he did in the first two games, and he disappeared in the second half, notching only two points and not one single rebound. Yikes. And on the defensive end? He was constantly lost in no man’s land, not sticking to his man (Gortat) but not extending far enough out to deter the Wizards’ guard penetration (and too slow to impact it when he did venture out). He looked alarmingly like pre-culture reset JV on this night.
Meanwhile, Jakob Poeltl has been maybe the Raptors’ worst player in this series. I’m not sure why—with his quick feet and soft hands, he should be fine in his usual role. But he’s tentative, sloppy, and generally looking lost. And the fouls... my God, the fouls. This is game 85—I can’t help but wonder how Poeltl has not yet learned to hold his screens long enough for the ball handler to get around? He breaks too early, it’s a moving screen, and it gets called every time.
And whither Playoff Serge? Serge Ibaka was great in game 1, and pretty good in game 2, and invisible last night. He had as many turnovers as points (3) and looked like he was playing with oven mitts on. He just couldn’t hang on to the ball! It’s a short(er) rest before game 4; we’d better hope Serge comes ready to go on Sunday.
Kyle Lowry Found his Shot, but Lost Everything Else
Kyle Lowry didn’t shoot the ball well in games 1 and 2, but absolutely controlled the game pretty much every minute he was on the floor. Last night, Lowry’s shot started to fall, but everything else kinda fell apart. The numbers tell part of the story—five turnovers, five fouls—but not all of it.
First, there’s the general tentativeness. Lowry didn’t really look fully engaged, his passes weren’t crisp and he didn’t seem to be moving with purpose when he didn’t have the ball.
Second, there’s the defense. Lowry was a major deterrent for both Wall and Beal in the first two games, but found virtually no success on them last night. They’re both great players who can get hot, of course, so credit goes to them. But Wall dominated Lowry in the low post, scoring over him or surveying the floor and finding open shooters. And Lowry got repeatedly killed on Gortat screens. He only guarded Beal on 10 possessions (versus 27 on Wall) but found no success there either.
Can he finally put it all together for a single playoff game, or better yet, an extended run? Remember Game 7 versus Miami Kyle Lowry? Would love to see that guy again.
How Will the Raptors Adjust?
The Raptors are still up 2-1 and still have homecourt advantage so no real adjustments are necessary. But! There are some things they should clean up:
- Go under John Wall screens and let him shoot. All too often John Wall would come around a screen, the Raptors big would come up, and Wall would blow by him and score; find his own big man for an easy bucket; or kick it out to wide open shooters as the defense collapsed. The Raptors just need to lay off and let him shoot midrange jumpers. I’d much, much rather he shoot those shots (and even hit them) than pick the defense apart in the lane.
- Stop turning the ball over. Give the Wizards credit, they were aggressive, getting into people and into passing lanes, and running off of every loose ball. But the Raptors need to take care of the ball better and make smarter passes.
- Get back in transition. We all saw Norman Powell get caught watching his own miss while the Mike Scott flew down the other way and scored in transition; Kyle Lowry did the same after a bad pass. Gotta run back, fellas.
- Stop screwing around with the lineups. Look, I know Dwane Casey was searching a bit. Fred VanVleet is still out. And Ibaka was bad. But Lorenzo Brown the entire fourth quarter? Playing Lucas Nogeuira and Brown together? Just play the starters down the stretch. This is what you saved them for all season! If you need to mix it up, replace OG Anunoby with C.J. Miles or Valanciunas with Siakam, but don’t overthink it. (Um, and maybe nix the DeMar DeRozan+bench lineups until Fred VanVleet comes back...)
The Wizards’ Faith in Themselves is... Something
Washington, though they looked discombobulated on the court for most of the first two games, exuded coolness and confidence off it. To be honest they almost seemed delusional; they’d been so much worse than Toronto on the floor in the first two games, you had to wonder just where that confidence (and those smug looks on the faces of Wall and Beal) was coming from.
Well now we know. They are absolutely not scared of this Raptors team; they really, truly believe they are the better team. They definitely believe they’re the tougher team.
They certainly were last night. It even seemed like part of their gameplan was to get under the Raptors’ skin with their boastfulness and chippiness, and it worked. The other stuff—cajoling the crowd, dancing, eating popcorn—is sheer disrespect, like a bully staring down his mark and saying “What? What are you going to do about it?”
They believe they can punch the Raptors in the mouth and that the Raptors won’t punch back. On Sunday, the Raptors need to prove that they can.
Looking for silver linings? The Cavaliers and Celtics both lost last night too! And I don’t say that to suggest the Raptors should be looking forward at anything—I say it just because we should take some joy in our “rivals” losing on the same night the Raptors do.
As for Game 4 on Sunday, the Raptors just need to stick their defensive principals and stop turning the ball over, and they should head home for Game 5 up 3-1.