Going in to last night’s Game 4 against the Washington Wizards leading two games to one, the Toronto Raptors were up against history: They’d never won a game 4 when leading 2-1, and yet they’d also gone 8-0 after a loss in the past three postseasons (when playing anyone other than the Cavs). One trend was going to continue, and unfortunately for the Raptors, it was the former. After a 106-98 Wizards win, this first-round series is tied.
The End is the Beginning (Of This Recap)
Let’s start in the fourth quarter, because that’s where things came undone for the Raptors. Specifically, the final 7.5 minutes or so. The Raptors led 90-82 and lost 106-98. A 24-8 run down the stretch? With two of those coming on a desperation Jakob Poeltl 14-footer, and the final two coming on free throws after the game was out of reach? Yep, that’ll do it.
The Raptors abandoned their offensive principles in the clutch, and allowed DeMar DeRozan to play hero ball like the Raptors of old. Predictably, it didn’t work. DeRozan missed 6-of-8 in the fourth (and one his buckets was a foot-on-the line 2-pointer, of course).
The better option—as it has been all season—would have been to run the offense, move the ball crisply side-to-side, run some pin-downs to open things for C.J. Miles or Kyle Lowry, or at the least, try to get DeRozan and a big in some two-man action, but instead the Raptors cleared out and let DeRozan work.
Now, you can look at this and very clearly state that DeRozan was fouled on two of his drives. But after the referees called Bradley Beal for his sixth foul with five minutes to go on a dubious call—and didn’t call a technical foul even though Beal was clearly showing up the officials by throwing a tantrum, indicating that the referees knew it was a bad call—everyone knew the Raptors weren’t getting another call the entire rest of the game.
DeRozan ended up 10-of-29 on the night. He shot 18 free throws, but only two in the fourth; I loved his aggression and his dedication to getting to the line early, but when the whistles died down he wasn’t able to adjust his game and get his teammates involved.
The Rotations Were Fine, for Three Quarters
I expressed some confusion after game 3 about the Raptors’ lineups, but last night Dwane Casey did exactly what I hoped he’d do early; he extended Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby’s minutes in the first quarter, and only went to the DeRozan+bench lineup for the final minute of the frame.
At the top of second quarter, the Raptors went with a Kyle Lowry+bench unit, and that was the nine-man rotation they used the entire night, which I believe—with Fred VanVleet’s absence—is the right way to go for the Raptors in this series. (Oddly enough, Scott Brooks countered that second quarter starting unit with Wall and Beal on the bench, and it was a rather defensive first three minutes of the quarter, with neither team scoring before John Wall came back.)
Closing out the second quarter, DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas re-entered the game with 7:16 to go; Ibaka and Anunoby came back two minutes later and the Raptors played the final five of the half with their starters. Overall the Raptors were +9 with that five-man unit on the floor in the half. That unit has been their best overall (+21 total through the first three games) and the Raptors have had great starts in each game.
Which is why I can’t understand why they don’t play it in the fourth quarter. Last night, Toronto closed wth Lowry, Derozan, Ibaka, Delon Wright and, oddly, Jakob Poeltl.
I get Wright, to a point; Casey likes the extra ball-handling. But Wright was hesitant all night. I’d much rather have seen Anunoby out there; he’s been playing with ice in his veins and defensively I think he and Wright are on the same level. (Although OG was slowed by an ankle injury, Casey said postgame it was fine and didn’t indicate Anunoby couldn’t play.)
As for the centre spot, I know Valanciunas has limitations, but he’s the best rebounder and best screen-setter on the team; all of Lowry and DeRozan’s offensive numbers indicate they’re better with him on the floor. I don’t think Poeltl’s slightly better footwork means he should get 13 straight minutes to close a must-win game.
Would it have made a difference, what with DeRozan dominating the ball? Maybe not. But maybe just play your best lineup and win or lose with it.
I Loved the Transition Offense Early
The Raptors were off and running on every Wizards turnover and miss in the early part of the game, and it was refreshing to see. They got a Serge Ibaka 3-pointer, a Serge Ibaka missed gimme, and a Serge Ibaka turnover on the first three attempts. But then DeRozan drew a foul and Lowry hit a pull-up 3-pointer in transition. They ran out to an 11-4 lead and forced Scott Brooks to call an early timeout and go to his bench. The Wizards went on to shoot 34% in the quarter and turned the ball over seven times, and the Raptors took advantage, scoring 17 fast break points.
I love it when the Raptors push the ball. Even when they don’t score on a break, I much prefer them getting into the offense with more time on the clock.
In the second half, the Wizards starting hitting shots, and those transition opportunities disappeared. Part of it was simply the shots averaging out—the Wizards missed a number of open looks in the first hald—but part of it was the Raptors being a step slow on defense. It’s possible OG Anunoby’s injured ankle was a culprit, but after shooting seven three pointers in the first half, the Wizards shot six in the third alone (hitting five of them).
There was one consistent in both halves though.
The Turnovers are (ahem) Turning This Series
After averaging 13.4 turnovers per game in the regular season (sixth-lowest the in the NBA) the Raptors are averaging 17 in the playoffs (dead last among playoff teams) and 18.5 the last two. And it is straight up killing them. John Wall is one of the fastest players in the NBA, and he is deadly in the open court, finding shooters or streaking to the rim himself.
Lowry and DeRozan made some poor decisions when passing, either being lazy with the ball (DeRozan tossing an underhanded pass to Ibaka in the corner on a 2-on-3 break) and forcing things (Lowry trying to squeeze a pass through two defenders, and hitting Valanciunas at the ankles). And Serge Ibaka, I mean I made my “is he wearing oven mitts” joke last game, am I going to have to break out the “he looks like’s playing with Kleenex boxes on his hands” joke?
Nah, I’ll save that one.
Point is, Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ibaka combined for 13 of the team’s 18 turnovers; Washington only had 13 total. That’s not good math.
Can the Raptors Adjust?
The Raptors are still, in the most technical sense, in control of this series; it’s a best-of-three and they’ve got homecourt advantage. But the Wizards, who looked broken, uninterested in defense and consumed by infighting a week ago, are now unified, confident and playing like they’re the better team.
I’m not sure how you adjust to that except to say, “play better.” Actually, one thing I do know: don’t go back to the offense of years past, like the Raptors did last night. Beyond that: Take care of the ball, and play your best lineups the most.
Actually, I will add one more. The Raptors’ big men need to stop watching the ball handlers on defense, and losing sight of their man. It’s allowing Wall to pick them apart with passes, and/or giving the Wizards’ bigs offensive rebound and second-chance scoring opportunities. Valanciunas, Poeltl and Ibaka need to “feel” their opponents a little more, and not let them slip away from them.
This is all it comes down to: stick with what got you here. It worked for 59 wins, it can work for two more this series.
The Raptors have not lost three straight games all year. After these two poor games, my confidence in that trend continuing is extremely low. But at the same time—this is what homecourt advantage is for. Let’s see if Toronto plays like the team that won 59 games on Wednesday night.