C.J. Miles is the Toronto Raptors’ hired gun; the only outsider to figure prominently in the 2017-18 edition’s rotation. He was brought here to help the club join the NBA’s space-and-space revolution.
But, like we said, the guy is still new here. He claims to have no idea that the Dwane Casey-era Raptors are 0-7 in the opening games of playoff series and an incredible 0-5 at the Air Canada Centre as the higher seed.
“No idea,” Miles said when the nightmare was laid out for him. “I hadn’t even thought about it. I didn’t know it was a thing until just now.”
Just a solid job all around. We’ve beaten this drum since the Raptors started really getting going in November. What Casey has done in terms of getting the young Raps up to speed, managing minutes, implementing strategy, and keeping all of his veterans on the same page and engaged is incredible.
Many believed the Raptors would be in for a slide this year. Lowry was getting older, DeRozan was still a retrograde talent, Ibaka remained enigmatic, Valanciunas limited, the entire bench an unknown. And yet, with Casey’s guidance, the Raptors finished the year atop the Eastern Conference with a record number of wins to boot. Not bad for a coach who’s been on and off the proverbial hot seat over seven years.
Dwane Casey, who has been openly challenging anyone who suggested NBA protocol dictates he MUST shorten his rotation heading into the playoffs, remains firm in the belief that what was good enough to get him and his team a No. 1 seed and 59 wins in the regular season is just as good in the second season.
Now Casey is leaving himself some wiggle room here. Factors like, say, Fred VanVleet being questionable for the opener of the series with a sore shoulder courtesy of that illegal screen Miami’s Bam Adebayo threw at him Wednesday would obviously affect the rotation, although VanVleet is saying he will play.
Meeks’ suspension makes Washington’s signing of guard Ty Lawson just before the playoffs make more sense. Lawson replaces Meeks on the Wizards’ bench behind starting guards John Wall and Bradley Beal.
In his first season with the Wizards and ninth in the NBA, the 30-year-old Meeks averaged 6.3 points off the bench and was shooting just under 40 per cent.
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On Saturday, the Raptors and Wizards will tip off for a first-round rematch.
Before that 2015 series, Washington’s Paul Pierce decried that the Raptors lacked “it.” He then went out and defined what “it” is.
Now an ESPN commentator, Pierce this year has declared the Wizards his dark horse team to advance out of the first round.
With the Raptors the East’s No. 1 seed and the Wizards struggling at the end of the season, Toronto will get a chance to prove it finally has “it.”
“I only think about it when y’all bring it up, honestly,” DeRozan said when asked about the tendency for Game 1 losses. “We been great at home all year. It’s definitely something we took more pride in than ever and I think it showed. With that, we got that unconscious confidence this time around more than ever. We feel like when we’re on our home floor, anything’s possible, and our swag is at an all-time high.”
The Raptors’ opportunity has never been better – with the Boston Celtics missing stars because of injury and the Cleveland Cavaliers coming through a tumultuous season of roster-shuffling and unpredictable results.
A Game 1 Toronto win would go a long way in flipping the playoff narrative. It would have the Raptors receiving kudos early in the postseason, rather than fending off critics and doubters. It would be new.
The question was posed to several Raptors on Friday’s eve of the post-season. How do they slay that Game 1 dragon?
“Our Game 1 is our Game 7, to be honest,” Lowry said. “We’ve gotta play like it’s Game 7, like it’s our last game. We’ve lost a lot of Game 1s … That’s the mentality that we have to have.”
Lowry had just four points on 2-of-11 shooting in last year’s opener, a 97-83 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Why are the Raptors notorious for bad starts?
“I think we just haven’t played hard enough,” Lowry said. “We’ve just been so uptight in Game 1s. I think this is a different year for us. We wanna play like a Game 7, but we just wanna go out there and play our game. Different offence, different system, different type of way we play the game and approach it. It’ll be fun.”
“The atmosphere in Toronto for playoff games is incredible; what you see on TV doesn’t do it justice,” Pierce said, looking back. “You have to be there to feel it.
“But you know, nobody respected the Raptors, even on their home court. If you got the Raptors in the playoffs, it was nothing to fear. It was a matchup I always wanted.”
There it is. Harsh and plain. And the losses keep happening.
Game 1 has been a demon the Raptors cannot shake. It has gone from nuisance to unexplainable to unacceptable. The Raptors’ Game 1 losing streak is at 10. More confounding is they’re 0-6 at home. Six Game 1 defeats in front of that relentless crowd when they have had the higher seed and the alleged advantage.
Lowry-DeRozan vs. Wall-Beal: The two best starting backcourts in the East are squaring off, and how those four players perform will go a long way towards determining the series for either club.
Wall played only 41 games this season and underwent knee surgery earlier this year. He posted his lowest scoring total in four years and averaged fewer assists this season than any in his last five. But he remains a difficult guard to contain and exploits defenders off the dribble, forcing defences to adjust their rotations when he gets into the lane. Beal’s presence only makes it harder to focus on Wall. The sixth-year shooting guard is Washington’s leading scorer at just over 22 points per game, and is a dual-threat from beyond the arc and attacking off the dribble as well. With Wall sidelined for half the season, Beal got more attention than ever and posted the lowest three-point percentage of his career. But he has been stellar against the Raptors, averaging 28.8 points in four games versus Toronto this season — his highest-scoring mark against any team in the East all season.
Yet, in the four years that have passed since the Wizards’ breakthrough win over the Bulls, they’ve done little to take advantage of their window of opportunity. The core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter still haven’t advanced past the second round.
After putting together their best campaign since 1978 last season, Washington has fallen on tough times this time around. They’re entering the playoffs as the eighth seed, and need to go through the 59-win Raptors and most likely the Cavaliers to break through and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite it all, they have a golden opportunity to right all of their wrongs from a disappointing regular season and make a run at that elusive, Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Their first round matchup against the Toronto Raptors will not be easy, however, the Wizards have shown that they can compete with the team up north. They split the season series with Toronto 2-2; playing all four games without John Wall. Facing the Cavaliers won’t be easy either, but with the way the Cavaliers have struggled defensively, and the drama that has surrounded the team this season, anything is possible. The Eastern Conference is as wide open as it’s been since LeBron James left Miami.
“I can’t explain it. Actually, it’s ridiculous,” said point guard Kyle Lowry.
“Look, we’ve been trash in these Game 1s, and I don’t have a clue why. I’ve thought about it,” said his frontcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.
“I don’t know, man. And it gets in your head, and every series it got worse,” said former Raptor DeMarre Carroll, who experienced five Game 1 losses in his tenure with the team.
Question: Who or what will be the X factor of the series?
Mike Bossetti: Kyle Lowry vs John Wall. Lowry has been better than Wall this season by a wide margin. However, his post-season troubles have been well documented. Wall on the other hand was spectacular in the playoffs last season and has been throughout his career. The excuses are over for Lowry and he will need to at least hold even with Wall in this matchup.
Koby Palimaka: The X factor of the series will be team depth. It’s not a secret that the Washington Wizards are a top-heavy team (to say the least). While throughout the year the Raptors have shown that they essentially have two starting lineups on the team. Having the choice to rotate squads will be extremely beneficial for the Raptors as the Wizards tire themselves out.
The Raptors have obviously been influenced by Toronto’s hip-hop culture in how they market their team — borrowing terms like “The Six” and “T-Dot” — and the way in which the franchise is resonating with fans. There’s does seem to be a clear link between what that song represents and what the Raptors are trying to represent.
Kardinal: You know what’s interesting is that when the Raptors were first really trying to solidify themselves as a legitimate sports team was the same time I was in the United States and internationally trying to really legitimize hip hop coming out of Canada.
I remember doing all of these interviews and I was pretty much the only Canadian hip-hop representative out there for like a decade saying, “It’s Raptors all day!”
For years we were still a bandwagon city, meaning fans in Toronto were still wearing paraphernalia from other teams and cities. But what I love is that over the last while we really represent the home team and it’s Raptors first for the most part.
Even at the Air Canada Centre, a lot of times people would ask to take pictures with me and if they were in an opposing jersey I wouldn’t take the picture, you know? Literally I’d be like “Either zip up that coat or take that jersey off.” That’s a stance I still take to this day but I’m having to do that less and less when I go to the ACC nowadays. Fans are proud to be repping their country.
The inconsistent season had crawled to a close. Inside the Amway Center visitor’s locker room, Washington Wizards backup centre Jason Smith picked at plate of chicken thigh meat. As Smith waited for his meal to cool, he salivated over the taste of the playoffs.
“This is fun time now,” Smith said. “This is where you step up. This is where you amp up. Our guys need to come together as one, and we’ll go out there and take on Toronto.”
There was no beverage near his locker, but judging by this unwavering optimism — even after the Wizards (43-39) had closed the regular season with another inexcusable loss and failed to advance higher than the eighth seed — Smith’s glass would have been half full. In fact, buoyancy spread through the locker room ahead of the team’s first-round playoff matchup against the No. 1-seeded Toronto Raptors.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Toronto stunk up the joint in that series. Playing with little energy for long stretches and looking altogether shell-shocked, the Raptors took home some valuable lessons from that humiliation and have turned their fortunes around with 56-, 51- and 59-win seasons and a conference final berth to boot ever since.
That doesn’t mean the team would’ve suddenly forgotten about 2015, though. While it’s true these Raptors are quite a bit different than the group that last played the Wizards in the playoffs, the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas is still here and seeing as Washington’s personnel is almost identical to what it was before, it won’t be hard for that Raptors trio to remember just how bad things got and how they can ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
For several years, the prevailing offensive trend in the NBA has been the move toward three-point shot attempts. The Raptors fully bought in this year. Toronto launched 33 three-pointers a game in the regular season, third in the league and a dramatic improvement from 22nd the previous season. In doing so, the Raptors crushed a previous team record in three-pointers made. The team surpassed 10 made threes in a whopping 60 games this season (something they did just 37 times last year) and won 49 of those games. Lowry set personal records in three-pointers attempted and made, and DeRozan revolutionized his game to make deep shooting a new weapon. Even big man Jonas Valanciunas has got into the action: after making a single three-pointer last season, he made 30 this time around. Better ball movement has been crucial to the offensive overhaul. The Raptors finished the regular season sixth in the NBA in assists per game, compared to dead last in 2016-17.