Before Game 5 on Wednesday, as Raptors fans were locked in battles with anxiety or indigestion or both, we here at Raptors HQ asked a simple question about the looming swing game against the Wizards: who was primed to become the newest playoff folk hero in Toronto?
Weighing historical precedent and gut feelings, some candidates were laid out. Would it be a fortuitous flip of one of the C.J. Miles or Lucas Nogueira wild cards? Would a Game 5 against a team that regularly features five-man bench units led by Ty Lawson jog Norman Powell’s memory of how to be good at basketball? The potential of a Fred VanVleet return from injury was a tantalizing possibility for future Raptors history book writers, to be sure. Yet after 48 minutes of clenched cheeks, it was someone else entirely who emerged as a Toronto sports immortal.
Delon Wright had himself a damn game, and in doing so, completed a redemptive goat-to-hero arc — the potential of which I failed to foresee when scrolling through possible Game 5 stand-outs.
Over the course of the first round, Wright has been far and away the best Toronto reserve, single-handedly helping save face for the league’s best regular season bench as it’s assumed pumpkinhood in April. In Game 1 Wright shot the lights out. Game 2 saw him feature in a funky small lineup that denied a late Wizards push. His respective plus/minus numbers in those games — plus-8 and plus-11 — corresponded exactly with the Raptors’ margins of victory.
Wright continued to be a bellwether for the team on the road. His 5-of-15 mark from the field and solitary made three over two games morphed the just-hanging-in second unit into an rudderless raft lost at sea. In Game 4, the Raptors abandoned their new and sexy offensive principles, with this PTSD-inducing sequence from Wright — the ‘P’ stands for Patterson — epitomizing Toronto’s wandering identity.
This type of possession can't happen if Toronto wants to win.— Coop (@CoopNBA) April 25, 2018
The point of doing anything on offense is to:
1) Create an advantage, and then
2) To execute on that advantage.
If 2 defenders are drawn to the ball and the pass is made to find the open man, they have to shoot. pic.twitter.com/9LSDynBioi
“We turned down some good looks that I thought we normally step into,” said coach Dwane Casey after the Game 4 loss.
Wright’s reticence to launch the threes he shot with oomph early in the series wasn’t the only reason the Raptors were limited to 18 attempts from deep in Game 4, but it certainly contributed.
All year, Toronto’s stars and role players have existed in symbiotic harmony. When the role players convert their looks, it opens up real estate for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. When the stars exploit that space, defenses react and the satellite players get thrust back into action. Back and forth the relationship would go to the tune of a top-5 offense. Toronto’s attack has worked because it forces teams to make unenviable choices. When Wright’s passing up shots he hit at a 37 percent clip all year, those compromises become easier to live with.
All that Wright did poorly in D.C. was redeemed on Wednesday. What’s more — he nestled into a pocket of Raptors lore he’ll never be pushed from. Raptors fans still talk about Powell’s Game 5 dunk against Indiana, Kyle Lowry’s Game 7 against the Heat and Vince Carter’s duel with Allen Iverson, and will do so for as long as the nuke-wielding psychos running the world allow happy things like the NBA to exist. Wright’s 11-point fourth quarter in Game 5 is now part of those conversations.
The story of Wright’s game isn’t done justice by looking only at the final 12 minutes. In fact you could argue that his two-way brilliance in the fourth was only made possible by an event that took place two quarters earlier: Wright’s first three-point attempt of the game.
For the briefest of moments, the hesitation Casey alluded to after Game 4 looked to be scrapping to enter Wright’s psyche. It may have been that his pause on the catch was just a matter of getting his feet set. But for narrative and thematic purposes, let’s say he was fighting off the wrackspurts before letting it fly.
“It was just one of those things where I was trying to be unselfish and make an extra pass,” Wright said of what caused his passiveness in Game 4. “Today I had a lot of people telling me to stop hesitating and just shoot the ball and that’s what I tried to do today.
“I had people all over my Twitter, my Instagram, my family,” Wright added. “About 30 people were telling me that. I kind of felt bad. When I saw the film I was like ‘That’s crazy.’”
That first make laid the groundwork for Wright’s fourth quarter, a frame during which he’d check all the requisite boxes on the folk hero application. He was intrinsic to a monumental ‘W’. He found himself on the periphery of historic, unprecedented events. And he produced some signature plays that’ll have snappy, short-hand nomenclature some day soon.
In regards to Box #1 — Wright plucked the shit out of some strings as an instrumental member of the JV & The Smalls lineup that broke the game open in the final nine minutes. Trailing 87-82 with 8:52 on the clock, Dwane Casey deployed what appeared to be an offense-first unit of Lowry, DeRozan, Wright, Miles and Jonas Valanciunas. Funnily and/or inexplicably enough, that fivesome defended its collective ass off. And while the group’s ability to clamp down on the Wizards attack will likely be remembered and celebrated, their job was made easier by getting buckets on the other end, thus preventing John Wall from conducting an orchestra of death in transition for most of the quarter. Wright’s presence was key to opening up what had been a sticky attack through three quarters.
“I thought Delon Wright did a good job down the stretch,” said Casey post-game, “handling the ball, gave us an opportunity for Kyle and DeMar to get off the ball a little bit more, and I thought that was the difference.”
“I think we did a great job of not (having DeMar) bringing the ball up.” said Wright of the Raptors’ more varied offensive approach in the fourth. “We just kind of let the ball find him. He was able to make plays out of double teams or whatever they were throwing at him. Game 4 he was bringing it up and they were able to load on him. This game we would bring the ball up on one side and the ball would find him on the other. We did a good job of that.”
DeRozan had a myth-making performance of his own through the first 36 minutes. With Washington staying glued to the shooters and rolling bigs around him, DeRozan accepted the dare and made the Wizards pay for ceding looks to him. His 30 points on 20 shots through three quarters was the load-bearing pillar the offense needed. More support was needed in the fourth. Wright, Lowry, Miles and Valanciunas obliged.
DeRozan had fewer tunnel-vision possessions in the fourth quarter of Game 5 than he did during the previous game’s collapse. Lowry and Wright swapped turns initiating, and the team leveraged the intense attention being paid to Miles into clean looks elsewhere. It was familiar and game-swinging. As a result of the offense regaining it’s free-flowing status, DeRozan only picked up two points on four fourth quarter attempts.
Which brings us to the aforementioned historic and unprecedented events that Wright found himself caught up in.
Valanciunas with the steal on Wall leading to the DeRozan dunk. pic.twitter.com/v4wIvPaOnd— RealGM (@RealGM) April 26, 2018
I wear glasses most days. On Wednesday, I wore my contacts for the first time in about a month. I thought something was wrong with my lenses when Valanciunas stripped Wall and started a fast break. If the Raptors go on to win this series, this will go down as a pantheon play in Raptors playoff history. Valanciunas will deservedly be remembered for executing Casey’s orders to show high on the pick-and-roll more effectively than even Casey could have dreamed. DeRozan has another entry on his absurdly long list of thunderous crunch-time jams. Wright’s bit part in the play isn’t as glamorous as DeRozan or JV’s starring roles. But for the rest of eternity, whenever someone watches that now-iconic fast break, Wright will be there. It’s truly some Forrest Gump level shit.
Of course, Wright wasn’t denied his own signature play to remember the biggest quarter of his career by. Poor Norman Powell just has the one measly dunk to show for the touchstone game of his career. Wright’s got options to choose from if he’s looking to print off a poster to hang in the den.
Personal preferences will vary, but the following is a brief ranking of Delon’s fourth quarter plays from what will be least to most memorable in, say, three year’s time.
#3 - The Three
Wright’s second three of the night might be the most important of his late instances of heroism. It came at the end of the shot clock, put the Raptors up four, and was simply worth more points than any other bucket he picked up in the frame. Casey saying that Wright hit it “from Barrie” at the podium certainly adds to the highlight’s luster.
That said, the possession as a whole wasn’t any great shakes — through not fault of Wright’s, to be fair — and the competition is hot.
#2 - DeLob, right?
Some people might put Wright’s finish from DeRozan at the top of their list. Considering it capped a personal 5-0 Wright run and provided, to that point, the first real relief of tension for the 20,000 butts in the crowd, having it no. 1 is a completely acceptable position to take.
But, like, this next play was just so perfect.
#1 - The Steal & Euro Finish
Wright’s first stand-out play from the quarter features every aspect of Wright’s uncommonly cool aesthetic. On the defensive side, you get a lightning quick display of the hands that poke two steals per 36 minutes free. That Wright stripped Wall — a guy who’s been dedicated to ruining the days of Toronto fans for the last two weeks — is a succulent bonus. Next up, it’s the Wright-led fast break, one of the most delightful regular beats a Raps game can hit. Wright, eyes surveying, with a head of steam and trailing teammates joining the fray, is a recipe for, well, mostly Pascal Siakam dunks, but other fun things can happen, too. To close it all out, you get the patented Wright Euro-step and delicate finish. Chefs everywhere are kissing their fingers. Throw in the fact that it brought the Raptors within one point and you almost have a replica of Powell’s game-tying dunk two years ago — with both baskets coming in the form of each player’s specialty.
From the stark contrast between Wright’s failures in Game 4 and triumphs three nights later, to the fingerprints the Raptors’ third-year guard had all over Game 5’s highest-leverage moments, to the highlights Wright partook in both as support and as a leading man, Wednesday night saw a Raptors playoff fable born, and a quirky, fresh-faced point guard from Utah immortalized.
The next page in the storybook is ready to be filled in Game 6.