Eight Raptors scored at least nine points, the rotation stretched to 11 players and that included centre Lucas Nogueira, an afterthought for much of the year, who stepped in to help swing the game against Washington.
The statsheet might only read one point, one rebound and one assist in nine minutes for Nogueira, but those numbers completely downplay how valuable he was on this night.
“I think Lucas is unbelievable, man,” said Serge Ibaka, probably the best Raptors player on the floor.
The Wizards started the opener looking to put defensive pressure on DeRozan and Lowry at every opportunity, as you knew they would. They threw blitzes at them and trapped them on pick and rolls. After all, it worked when Washington deployed similar coverage in its 2015 first-round sweep of the Raptors and it has worked when just about every other team Toronto has faced since has done it.
The thinking is simple: force their best players and primary creators to give the ball up earlier than they’d like and make the guys around them beat you. It proved to be a pretty nifty strategy when Toronto’s all-stars didn’t fully trust their supporting cast and, not unrelated, the team’s role players couldn’t hit their shots and make the defence pay.
But these aren’t the same old Raptors.
Wizards-killer CJ Miles and Delon Wright combined to shoot 7-for-11 from the 3-point line, and most of their shots were wide open. The Wizards would fail to communicate on some possessions, or be slow to close out on others, and the Raptors made them pay.
The most damning example of this came with 6:28 left in the game, with Washington still within four points. Comcast SportsNet’s Chris Miller reported that in the practices leading up to Game 1 of the Wizards-Raptors series, Coach Brooks quizzed each of the Wizards’ defenders on how to stop CJ Miles, and they all responded by saying he had to be run off the 3-point line.
“We got Game 1, as we should,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We’ve been great at home all year, and that’s something we’ve worked for and gained that reputation from the beginning of the season, how we ended up playing at the end of the season, so we already had that in our minds. On home court, we’re supposed to win. That’s our mindset.”
DeRozan, playing as much facilitator as scorer, had 17 points and six assists, while Delon Wright had 18 points, and rookie OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles scored 12 apiece. Kyle Lowry, who was battling a virus and coughed throughout the post-game press conference, finished with 11 points and nine assists for the Raptors.
Drake showed his support for the Humboldt hockey community Saturday.
The Toronto rapper wore a No. 14 white, green and gold Humboldt Broncos jersey to the Raptors’ opening playoff game against the visiting Washington Wizards at the Air Canada Centre.
But not this time, not on this night. For the first time in Lowry and DeRozan’s career they will be trying to go up 2-0 in a series, an opportunity that comes their way on Tuesday night.
“Whatever that first-game [curse] was about, hopefully we got it off our back,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I think you guys made more out of it than anything else. We just have to go out and do what we do. Eighty-two games is a good sample size of who we are.”
But now they know it can hold up in in the playoffs. With the Raptors 114-106 win Toronto not only slayed their metaphorical Game 1 monkey, they did it their way.
It never made a ton of sense that the Raptors couldn’t win that game, what with a strong home-court advantage, being favored in every instance, and the fact that they’d go on to win a handful of those series anyway. To be sure, Dwane Casey mixed up the routines and prep work ahead of Game 1s to try something new. Here, it was really just about the Raptors sticking to who they were and not tightening up when Washington made a strong counter-push in the second quarter. The Raptors went into the half tense, but they responded appropriately, which hasn’t always been the case in these spots.
“We just don’t want to chance injuring him further,” Casey said. “He’s getting much better but just not going to go (in Game 1).”
VanVleet injured his shoulder in the regular season finale Wednesday in Miami when he was targeted with a moving screen by Heat big man Bam Adebayo.
His absence is expected to be short-lived.
The Raptors possess a kind of firepower that the Wizards can’t match. They have to tighten up and go back to the defensive drawing board. Beating the Raptors isn’t as easy as forcing DeRozan and Lowry to abandon their one-on-one talent anymore. The Raptors aren’t exactly an overpowering team, but their balance is a dangerous weapon.
“They are a good team,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “They are the No. 1 seed for a reason. They have a lot of good players. Guys off the bench came in and stepped up. VanVleet did not play tonight, but Wright came in and had a terrific game. That’s why they are so hard to guard. We have to do a better job of guarding all their players.”
And then, finally, everything changed. DeRozan began the third quarter with a layup and a drilled three-pointer. On the next Toronto possession, he found an open Serge Ibaka, who hit a three-pointer. After a Washington miss, Lowry gathered the rebound and raced up the court, then he pulled up and banged home a three pointer of his own. The five-point deficit was now a five-point lead, and the Air Canada Centre exploded. Lowry slapped a low-five with a teammate and scowled. If it is possible to make a very angry three-pointer, Lowry had just done it.
It was just two minutes and 11 seconds of game time, but it felt like the Raptors had just turned the perception of their team on its ear. They didn’t exactly cruise from there on the way to the 114-106 victory, but when Toronto needed desperately to keep those Game 1 demons from overtaking them, they had found a way to do just that.
Coach Dwane Casey would say afterward, with a smile on his face, that he was feeling just fine at halftime. “Felt great. Felt lovey dovey,” is actually what he said, which is when you knew he wasn’t being entirely truthful.
“It goes with the theme we’ve tried to develop the entire year—of ball movement, man movement. It’s not just two guys outscoring the opponent; it’s the Toronto Raptors outscoring the other team,” said Casey, a vindicated man. “Guys played their role. It’s the same role they played all year. And we still hold the power to change our minds. But as long as those guys are producing the way they are, why should we change our rotation?”
Indeed—when Delon Wright’s coming off the bench to put in one of his best games of the season with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting (including 3-of-4 from distance), when C.J. Miles is contributing 12 points of his own while nailing 4-of-7 threes, when Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell are playing spirited, hounding defence, when Jakob Poeltl is blocking two shots off the bench, when Lucas Nogueira—Lucas Nogueira!—is second on the team with a plus-8 in an energetic, bouncy shift that was borderline game-changing, for what logical reason would you want to get away from all that?