There are, as it turns out, reasons to remain optimistic about the Toronto Raptors entering Game 4 against the Washington Wizards on Sunday. What could be the final game of the 2014-15 season tips off at 6:30 p.m. on TSN from the Verizon Center, where the Raptors are tasked with beating a team that has looked far, far better than themselves in three consecutive games.
As a recap: Despite a pretty abhorrent second half, most of us talked ourselves into the Raptors righting the ship enough against an equally inconsistent Wizards team to take the series. I picked the Raptors in 7, an outcome that now seems almost impossible – teams that go down 3-0 are 0-111 in history, and it feels as if the Raptors are more rule than exception, with 0-and-Peaches-and-Cream on the way.
Game 1 saw both teams play terribly but Washington play slightly less so, stealing a 93-86 victory at the ACC. Game 2 was less open to your interpretation of variance, and the Wizards embarrassed the Raptors 117-106 on Toronto’s home turf. Game 3 saw the Raptors fight back, tooth and nail, hit some insane shots…and still come up short, 106-99 in The Capital.
In Games 1 and 3, the Raptors have done some things well enough but still been outplayed. The Wizards have been better in each outing and far better for the series. The Raptors have failed to adjust their difficult shot mix in the face of a strong Wizards defense and they still haven’t figured out how best to handle fairly simple one-five pick-and-rolls when the Wizards have a shooter at the four. If an answer for John Wall’s speed and passing exist, the Raptors don’t possess it.
The series is almost certainly over.
Still, with how much time we all invest in following the team and how high our hopes were for this season and this series…should we really just be giving up now?
I get it. 0-111. But even The Undertaker lost at Wrestlemania. The Raptors may not have a Brock Lesnar – Ed Sterner is absolutely Paul Heyman, by the way – but there are reasons, however faint, to hold on to just a modicum of optimism for Game 4.
The foremost reason: Why the hell not? Are you going to just not watch what could be the last game of the season? Are you going to actively root for the Raptors to lose? Of course not. Turn on the TV or get to Jurassic Park, and cheer your ass off while you still have the chance. Even if it only serves to prolong the inevitable, don’t you want a few more games, and the opportunity to be a crazy fan a little longer, talking yourself into a 1-3 comeback, and then a 2-3 comeback? Yes, you do. Stop being a fuddy duddy.
Another reason: The Raptors and Wizards have both been terribly hot-and-cold all season long. There remains a chance, however slim, that the Raptors could get hot and the Wizards cold at the same time, and things could change. It’s not at all likely, but again, the slightest reason for optimism.
More reasons: Kyle Lowry can’t keep shooting this poorly. The Raptors have to eventually get some things right on the defensive end. #PlayoffWittman might be a mirage. Bruno is yet to be unleashed.
And so on. I opened it up to reasons for optimism on Twitter, but people were mostly just assholes. Rightfully so, but assholes nonetheless. Here are the responses to my fruitless request for hope:
— Scott Campsall (@ScottCampsall) April 25, 2015
@BlakeMurphyODC The Raptors have been in 2/3 of the games in the 4th, and Kyle Lowry is shooting 24%.
— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) April 25, 2015
— Arun Srinivasan (@ASports89) April 25, 2015
@BlakeMurphyODC – The pressure might be off now that no team has ever come back from 0 – 3. Maybe they’ll move the ball around on Offense.
— mystery_sean (@Mystery_Sean) April 25, 2015
— Brad Henry (@bhenry05) April 25, 2015
— Phallics Rios (@the_Zubes) April 25, 2015
@BlakeMurphyODC Raps losing convincingly enough will give Masai licence to blow up the team, if he wants.
— Aaron Biderman (@AaronBiderman) April 25, 2015
— Abby ツ (@transform01) April 25, 2015
How you look at Game 4 is entirely up to you, but even if the series is pretty much closed, I’m gonna hope they figure it out for 48 minutes and give us one more home game. For my boy Nav.
In terms of adjustments, it remains the same story.
James Johnson should probably play. Even though the Raptors played poorly in his Game 2 minutes, he didn’t check Paul Pierce and remains the team’s best bet to guard him when he plays the four.
There were occasional instances of the Raptors actually guarding the one-five pick-and-roll alright down the stretch of Game 3, at least for partial possessions. They did well in daring Wall to shoot on some possessions, and Bradley Beal’s man remembered he’s guarding Bradley Beal in most cases. The problems remain when Jonas Valanciunas gets turned around, or when the help from the strong corner isn’t followed by the man from the strong wing dropping between the two outside shooting threats.
This is where examples would have gone, except I was having some issues making GIFs at 2 a.m. and had to just give up. Apologies. Please believe me that the defense was mostly bad but was occasionally actually alright, including one particular play that stood out around the 6:07 mark of the fourth, if you’re so inclined to go look.
Offensively, it’s the same story as ever the Raptors. You can bet on their guys just making shots, but the refs have been conservative with their whistles and the Wizards do a terrific job of keeping drivers out of the paint without sacrificing the integrity of their coverage on Raptors bigs.
You combat that by running more complicated actions, and I don’t mean elaborate, Spurs-ian plays. Even simple high pick-and-rolls that force defenders to make decisions provide an opportunity for a defense to make mistakes. Isolation plays do not, save for foul calls the Raptors just aren’t getting as much as their accustomed to.
Dwane Casey loves this fairly simply Loop 4 play and Will did a nice job breaking down some of the Raptors pet plays before the series.
None of this is ground-breaking stuff, and it’s not as if the Raptors haven’y run plays, but consider this:
*With 255, the Raptors are averaging fewer passes per playoff game than any other team.
*They’re 14th in points created by assists per game with 45, just 46 percent of their points.
*They’re 13th in catch-and-shoot attempts per game with 19.7 and first in drives with 35.7, but their shooting 41.7 percent on drives and are 13th in free throw attempt rate.
*They’re 15th in zero-dribble field goal attempts per game (shooting 44.2 percent) and 2nd in seven-plus dribble field goal attempts per game (shooting 25.6 percent).
I could go on. The message, of course, is to pass the damn ball and stop thinking that after three games of evidence to the contrary, shots will suddenly just start dropping and the foul calls will come. They very well might, but it’s not exactly a great gamble to make with your season on the line.
One other change may be to crash the offensive glass more. This seems counter-intuitive given how good the Wizards are in transition, but Toronto has a woeful 17.9-percent offensive rebounding rate in the series, last in the playoffs by far. The Raptors are somehow getting plenty of second-chance points off of those limited offensive boards, and much as it’s risky, it may be worth it to try to extend offensive possessions and get some easy baskets. This goes doubly if the team’s go small.
The Raptors are 5.5-point underdogs for the game. Everyone sees this series as over and it probably is. It definitely is. But there are at least 48 more minutes left in the season, and I see little point in throwing in the towel (you’re a towel).
And so, much as all logic suggests my attitude should be otherwise, with the season on the line, I leave you with this, a clip from a movie that the Raptors deserve a clip from, but one that resonates anyway: