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Five Thoughts on Last Night’s Game 6: Raptors 102, Wizards 92

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For the second straight year, the Toronto Raptors closed out a first-round series on the road, this team dispatching the Washington Wizards 102-92. As always: We’ve got thoughts!

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors trailed the Washington Wizards after the first quarter last night. After the second, they still trailed, and after the third too. Just like Game 5, they needed a big fourth quarter effort to win—and just like Game 5, that’s exactly what they got, as they closed strong and came away with a 102-92 win. On to round 2!

It Didn’t Look Good at the Start

In Games 3 and 4, transition defense was a problem for Toronto; in Game 5, it was the rebounding that nearly did them in.

Both faults returned in a big way in the opening minutes of Game 5. Toronto was missing shots, and the Wizards were grabbing the ball and cramming it down the Raptors’ throats. And when they didn’t convert in the fast break, Washington was once again grabbing every offensive rebound, and just like that, it was 15-4 Washington and for the first time in this series, it was Dwane Casey calling the first timeout to break the momentum.

Washington finished the quarter with 12 fast-break points and 7 second-chance points, and Raptors fandom was, understandably, concerned.

Thankfully the Raptors cleaned things up and to cut the lead to 10 at the end of the frame, which led us into a long-awaited moment in the second quarter...

The Return of the Bench Broskis

The man, the myth, the legend, Fred VanVleet finally returned and played meaningful minutes for the first time all series.

And his return lived up to the hype. With VanVleet at the helm, the bench unit played its best ball of the series and finally showed everyone just what the heck all the regular season hype was. Fred only hit two shots but he controlled the game and played excellent defense during his 18 minutes of play.

But if you really want to assess VanVleet’s play, look at Pascal Siakam’s.

Siakam had struggled on the offensive end all series, but tonight, he was back to his regular-season self: 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, eight rebounds and two blocks. He finished with a game-high +18, and threw in some more rock-solid defense on John Wall, too. It’s like Fred VanVleet is a cheat code that unlocks all of Siakam’s abilities.

Unfortunately, VanVleet’s return couldn’t do quite the same for Jakob Poeltl, who struggled all series. He wasn’t, say, Markieff Morris bad or anything, but he just didn’t look comfortable out there throughout the six games. And he’s looked especially bad when playing alongside Serge Ibaka, a pairing that reared its ugly head again tonight when Poeltl’s “foul trouble” (term used loosely, because is two fouls on your ineffective backup C really “trouble”?) caused Dwane Casey to mix up the rotations.

We actually saw Jonas Valanciunas open the second quarter with the bench, true rarity, and the unit played well (a 13-4 run to start the quarter). But that meant Poeltl was forced to close the quarter, with the Ibaka and the starters. And that was not so excellent. A 1-point Wizards lead ballooned back up to 10 before a handful of 3-pointers from Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby got it back down to three at halftime.

Here’s the thing about Poeltl though. In the past (i.e., before this season) Casey has been quick to give young players the hook when they haven’t performed. (Just ask Norman Powell.) But the “culture reset”—the trust we’ve been talking about all season—covers all aspects of the team. Casey trusts these guys, to play through bad stretches, and to pick up for each other when one player is struggling. Casey’s stuck with Poeltl, and even though he’s been sub-par, knowing the coach believes in him will hopefully help him turn it around in round 2.

Some Props for Dwane Casey

Let’s continue the coaching love for a second. I gave Casey flak earlier in the series for his lineups, specifically for not playing Jonas Valanciunas in the fourth quarter of Games 1-4. And while I do still think it took too long to make that adjustment, Casey did make several adjustments over the course of the series that worked.

My favourite last night was the quick coverage switch in the second quarter, after John Wall went into the post and got the Wizards two good looks (though one of them had the advantage of an egregiously illegal screen from Marcin Gortat). Casey went right to OG Anunoby, who came in to guard Wall the rest of the half, and neutralize that advantage.

During the non-Anunoby second half minutes, Pascal Siakam got the call on Wall—which is an adjustment Casey tried out in Game 4, and carried through Games 5 and 6.

Wall can still break either Raptor down off the dribble—as he can to just about anybody—and take advantage of those [expletive deleted] Gortat screens. But he can’t see overtop of Anunoby or Siakam the same way he can Lowry and VanVleet. I don’t think we saw another Wall post-up all game. And it allowed Kyle Lowry to guard Beal, where Lowry is even more effective, as Lowry’s a good 1-on-1 defender and Beal isn’t as strong in the pick-and-roll as Wall.

I generally like the idea of mixing up defensive coverages on players. It can be tough to cross-match at times—especially against a good transition team, as Washington can be—but it gives the offense something to think about coming down the floor as opposed to just jumping right into the same sets.

I think Casey also deserves credit for sticking with the Delon Wright-Lowry-VanVleet backcourt for as long as he did in the fourth quarter last night; the temptation had to be to go back to DeMar DeRozan earlier, but Casey let the hot hands ride it out. And then there are the adjustments Casey didn’t make—when the bench didn’t play particularly well, he could have jacked up Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes more, but he didn’t; he could have benched C.J. Miles when Miles wasn’t shooting well, but he recognized the effect Miles had on Washington’s D. He also could have tried forcing Norman Powell into VanVleet’s minutes, but when Powell proved ineffective, Casey mixed in more Lowry+bench minutes.

All in all, it was a good series for Casey.

All-Star Backcourt, Pretty Good

I’m as tired as anyone of the “Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan don’t play well in the playoffs” narrative; deserved or not, I just don’t want to hear about it anymore.

Maybe their play this series helps erase that narrative?

Lowry was sensational last night, scoring a team-high 24 and tallying six rebounds and six assists. The boxscore tells me he missed six shots but it felt like he hit everything he took! Down the stretch with the Raptors looking to close, it was Lowry time; after coming back in with 6:15 to go, Lowry hit a floater in the lane; an awkward half-layup, half-hookshot over Marcin Gortat; two free throws; and another tough layup that gave the raptors a 10-point lead with 1:50 to go that essentially sealed it.

As for DeRozan, this wasn’t his best night in terms of scoring. But all of the other adjustments he’s made in his game this year paid off; he shot four 3-pointers, and while he missed ‘em all, his willingness to take them matters. He also notched four assists, including a skip pass to Serge Ibaka for a 3-pointer that old DeRozan probably doesn’t see.

For the series, both players averaged more points-per-game than they did in the regular season (though they both played more minutes per game). Lowry’s field goal and 3-point percentages are both up, and accordingly his true shooting percentage is up as well, and while DeRozan’s percentages dipped, the drop-off is not significant.

Lowry’s defense, of course, was excellent the entire series, and even DeRozan’s wasn’t terrible. And, on top of all of that, here’s perhaps the most important number of the night:

Closing Strong

Remember Game 6 against Milwaukee last year? You may have blocked it out of your mind, but the Raptors allowed Milwaukee to completely erase a 25-point deficit and escaped by the skin of their teeth (and DeRozan’s spectacular dunk with under a minute left).

No such dramatics on this night. The Raptors started the quarter with the full Bench Mob, the first time they’ve truly been unleashed this season. They held the Wizards without a field goal for 3.5 minutes and turned a five-point deficit into a four-point lead, the Raptors’ largest of the night at that point. I thought for a moment that Casey might even ride the unit out the entire fourth, but wisely, he brought Lowry and Valanciunas back in with 6:15 to go, and DeRozan a couple minutes later, to seal it.

Almost six full minutes with five bench players, in the biggest game of the season, against Washington’s starters? Trust and depth: they’re incredible things.

Another cool note about the fourth: All of the things that plagued the Raptors in this series were erased in that quarter. Sloppy bench play? The Mob scored 17 points; the Wizards scored 14, total. Rebounding? The Raptors had eight offensive boards in the frame and outrebounded the Wizards 18-7. Turnovers? The Raptors had one, the Wizards had four.

That was a great way to seal a win—decisively. And a great way to fully erase that ugly Game 6 win from a year ago.

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That’s two straight Game 6’s the Raptors have won on the road. Sure, they were first-round series where the Raps where the higher seed, but still—that’s not an easy thing to do.

Slowly but surely, the Raptors are erasing those playoff narratives—and there’ll be even more opportunities to do so in the second round.