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The Raptors cannot revert, even when the pressure’s on

Toronto was taking Washington’s best punch. Then, frustratingly, they reverted to their old selves.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

No, the culture reset hasn’t reset.

The Toronto Raptors have the sample size of an entire regular season and two playoff games to tell us who they are. They’re a team that’s embraced ball movement — they don’t have assist numbers in the stratosphere, but incremental changes and a team buy-in has made this team fun to watch. 59 wins doesn’t just happen, you have to believe that how you’re playing is the correct way. For most of the season, the Raptors have done just that.

In Games 3 and 4 of this Washington series, though, a few factors have piled up and the Raptors have regressed as a result. It hasn’t been bad in its entirety, but late in Game 4 we saw Toronto revert wholesale to how they used to play. This means Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, dribbling the air out of the ball while others watch, trying to make something happen out of nothing.

After Beal fouled out of the game around the five-minute mark, Lowry and DeRozan went a combined 1-for-6 from the field. Here’s what it looked like on a possession-by-possession basis:

For the Raptors to succeed in this playoffs, they have to understand this simply cannot be a gear they get into. More so than years past, this roster is predicated on ball movement, transition, and getting easier shots for developing players. We have four seasons of research that say Lowry and DeRozan isolation is not efficient enough for the Raptors to win.

Sure, guys like Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl aren’t reliable for creating their own shot in the halfcourt. The offence, though, is designed for Lowry and DeRozan to create openings for them to be creative, make the right decision, and trust in each other. In Washington, this trust and creativity fell apart when the pressure set in.

A couple factors played into this reversion late in the game, when the Raptors scored just 18 points in the fourth and gave up a 21-6 run to the Wizards. Here’s how they can be fixed for Game 5.

Role Players Need to Take Open Shots

Last season’s playoff collapse was the basis for a “culture reset”. We all remember the frustration of watching the Raptors get swept by the Cavaliers, as it felt like the final, back-breaking moment in the Dwane Casey era.

Key to this collapse was the unreliability and timidity of Toronto’s supporting cast. DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson famously shot 31.8% and 30.8% from three, as the latter became more known for pump fakes than intangible contributions.

In Washington, we saw the same kind of timidity from Delon Wright. On this possession, he rejects two open three-pointers where the offence sets him up perfectly.

Clear-eyed, Delon realized after the game that these are shots he has to take.

Wright was fine in Toronto, too, as he made 2-for-4 from deep and contributed to positive spacing for the Raptors. In order to gain the trust of Lowry and DeRozan, Wright has to keep shooting the open looks, even if he reverts back a little bit percentage-wise. With Fred VanVleet out, he and C.J. Miles are the only trust-worthy guards in the Raptors’ rotation behind their two All-Stars. That means the burden of volume shooting — a personality trait of Toronto’s all season — falls on them.

The Wizards have already said they’re willing to give those shots up. If Delon keeps taking them, it’s an efficiency that should bear out in the Raptors’ favour over time.

Playing Through An Uneven Whistle and Emotional Swings

After Beal’s sixth foul turned up the temperature in the arena, it seemed like the Raptors lost the plot. Beyond just the bad possessions from Lowry and DeRozan above, Toronto did not handle an uneven whistle well, and fell back into old habits when the pressure was on.

This series is now a best-of-three. Even with the fact two of those games are at home, the Raptors will undoubtedly feel pressure from a Wizards team with nothing to lose. There’s an inherent need, again, to trust in what got you here. Reverting to old habits is not an option, even when the doubts of the past start bleeding in.

The VanVleet Factor

We knew Fred VanVleet’s absence would affect the Raptors, but lack of depth has made it hurt more as the series has gone on. Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira and Lorenzo Brown have been borderline unplayable, as the Wizards ensure they maximize the minutes of Wall and Beal. This leaves nine players in Dwane Casey’s ideal rotation, and an inordinate amount of pressure on Serge Ibaka, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles to score in relative volume.

This isn’t to say that it can’t happen. We already saw all three of those guys play great in Toronto. Without VanVleet, though, the room for error slims to razor-thin. There’s one less ball-handler on the floor, they miss out on closing minutes with a quality shooter off-ball, and the team misses Fred’s confidence on the road.

Somehow, Casey has to figure out a way to fill VanVleet’s minutes without taxing Lowry too much. Toward the end of Game 4, there was some fatigue showing for Kyle. This also comes back to the need for sharing and shot creation outside of Lowry and DeRozan — if Kyle can get some active rest on the floor, you can play him and not worry about 40 minutes coming back to bite you in the fourth quarter.

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In the end, the blame shouldn’t be entirely on Lowry and DeRozan for not passing in the last three minutes — I wouldn’t say hubris was the deciding factor in their tunnel vision. These two want to win, now more than ever while the team is a number one seed. Given the context of the Game 4 happening around them, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

This counts as regression, though. For the Raptors to be successful, they need to involve their supporting cast, and the supporting cast has to trust in what they’ve done all year.