It’s out of the way now. After four years of coughing up Game 1s and punting hard-earned home-court advantage, the Toronto Raptors took care of business at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, defeating the Washington Wizards 114-106 to take a 1-0 series lead and put to rest a lot of bad jokes and a lot of semi-legitimate concerns. The Raptors have said, and shown, all year that they are different than previous versions of themselves. Affirming that message was going to require a strong start to the playoffs, and while there were the expected ebbs and flows to get there – this is the playoffs, and the Raptors can no longer expect to bounce teams by 20 with regularity no matter how well they play – the Raptors did just that.
“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, and that’s our mindset.”
As they should. That’s a mindset that hasn’t always held in place come playoff time, even as the Raptors out-seeded opponents and stood as favorites on paper. The specter of Playoff Raptors has always remained. That’s not going to dissipate entirely after one game, especially one that took a full four quarters to take control of, but there is a weight off, if not in the locker room then in the tired narrative and for an anxious fanbase.
“It’s a new series, a new team,” Delon Wright, who was tremendous all game, said. “We’re definitely not the same team as last year. It’s definitely a sigh of relief — I know the fans are more relieved than we are. They’ve been dealing with it. We did what we were supposed to do. It’s a new year.”
Again: What they’re supposed to do. When DeRozan said Thursday that the team’s “swag is at an all-time high,” this is the attitude to which he was referring. There is a greater sense of confidence than in years past, and an almost defiant attitude toward continued questions a new Raptors team has had to answer about old Raptors teams. Supposed to. Should. This is how the Raptors finally feel, and how they finally played in a Game 1.
The questions weren’t being asked unreasonably, though, and the Raptors set out to answer them early. Their start to the game was excellent, with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry navigating Washington’s traps and corrals expertly, trusting the other players on the floor to make plays. OG Anunoby hit a quick three, Serge Ibaka made quick decisions, and Jonas Valanciunas was his better, aggressive self inside against Marcin Gortat, then Ian Mahinmi, and then Mike Scott as Wizards bigs kept collecting fouls. Anunoby did a solid job on Beal out of the gate, too, and the Raptors found a groove until some defensive slippage saw Washington miss a few good looks from long-range. The absence of Fred VanVleet presented itself as a problem late in the frame, with John Wall attacking Wright and Jakob Poeltl and the DeRozan-and-bench unit struggling to score in the halfcourt. Toronto forced enough turnovers to stay ahead despite their own heavy dose of miscues, and a five-point lead after a quarter offered room to exhale.
“I liked it. In the past, everybody always gets on those guys for being double-teamed and trapped and the ball, again, guys have to make plays when they give it up,” Dwane Casey said of his stars combining for five assists in the first and 15 on the night. “Tonight, what, 15 or 16 assists amongst them, you know, it’s what they gotta do. Other guys have to make plays around them. Tonight, guys did. CJ made some shots, Delon hit some shots, and that’s what you have to do. They were willing passers.”
Scott Brooks opened the second as he’s loathe to, with both Beal and Wall on the bench, but the pseudo-bench mob couldn’t take advantage, even with C.J. Miles delivering a pair of threes. Wall’s return saw him lead a startling Wizards counterpunch, and a 14-2 run threatened to suck the energy out of the ACC. Washington pulled ahead five, feasting on points off of turnovers, and it wasn’t until every starter was back on the floor that the Raptors settled down. Ibaka’s rim protection late in the half was tremendous to help make up for some miscommunications between himself and Valanciunas, Valanciunas found a cutting Anunoby, and the Wizards had to play over four minutes in the penalty. Anunoby got a late crack at a red-hot Wall, too, a harbinger of how the Raptors would come out of the half after trailing by four going in.
“Felt great. Felt lovey-dovey. I was happy as a lark,” Casey joked of his halftime mood following Washington’s run.
The starting unit once again made its impact felt, and while Anunoby couldn’t exactly slow Wall, Lowry did a tremendous job on Beal and the change overall was a positive. Toronto railed off an 11-2 run early in the half to wrestle control of the game back, led by a pair of threes from DeRozan. Wall did a nice job of finding teammates during another push, and DeRozan countered with by far his most aggressive quarter of the game as a scorer, looking to exploit a lack of rim protection. The DeRozan-and-bench portion of the game sputtered some again, though Poeltl at least made up for a pair of turnovers with a drawn charge and Wright stopped a heating-up Mike Scott on a post-up to maintain a one-point edge entering the fourth.
Casey went to an old standby from here. Rather than force Norman Powell into the 10th-man role again, he opted for a Lowry-and-bench look that’s buoyed the Raptors at their worst for years and raised the ceiling of the Raptors at their best just as long. In the least shocking news of the game, it worked. Scott had hit a few quick jumpers to put that in question, but his flagrant foul on Lowry gave Toronto a breather and allowed them to re-assert their style of play, plus earn a free point.
“Yeah it was a big sequence,” Lowry said. “They called it, it was a foul, I went to the basket, hard foul, made the free throws. Then Delon made a nice play. But that’s a tough team. They’re not a normal eight seed. They’ve got two all-stars, guys who can really play, Markieff (Morris) was really good, Gortat. That sequence was big for us to get the lead back and get a little momentum, a little push.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Scott’s flagrant changing the tone. Casey rolled the dice with his knuckleballer in Lucas Nogueira, and Nogueira delivered exceptionally on the opportunity he was give. A 7-0 run promptly followed him entering the game, then a 10-0 run later, his length causing the Wizards to question some of the drives they’d been subsisting on, and finding Nogueira out of traps gave Toronto a lot of playmaking on the floor (maybe even to a fault at times).
“Well, he’s a passer. Lucas is an excellent passer, he’s smart, his IQ is off the charts, and just his awareness,” Casey said. “I liked that when they were double-teaming Kyle and DeMar, getting the ball out of their hands, he can make plays. And when you come at the basket, he’s 7-4, whatever he is under the basket, so he’s a deterrent once they get there to the paint. He’s been doing the same thing all year, it’s nothing new.”
Casey continued pushing the right buttons for the most part. A Wizards basket got called off after a review due to the shot-clock expiring to provide some extra breathing room, and a closing unit of Wright, Nogueira, and the three primary closing starters kept Washington at arm’s length. Wall tried in the somewhat flawed ways Wall tries in fourth quarters, and he struggled to finish at the rim even in transition, where Lowry was backpedaling to contest like a 6-foot Bismack Biyombo. Ibaka was terrific through it all, as well, turning in probably the best two-way game of any Raptor, an enormous swing factor for this series if it can continue.
“It feels good,” Ibaka said. “Everybody, when they hear about Serge Ibaka, it’s always about defence. So to have confidence from my teammates and the coaches, I think it feels good.”
The close-out sequence was a good reminder of what playoff basketball feels like in Toronto when the clouds of deja entendu part. The ACC was electric outside of the second quarter, peppering Wall with chants, getting in Scott Foster’s ear, and shaking the building during the early-fourth pull-away run.
“They were as rowdy as they always are. It’s great, man,” Miles said. “You hear them chanting. I’m not going to repeat what they chant sometimes. But it’s great to hear. You know they’re into the game. They give us a lot of boost out there. We love it and we try to give them plays and allow them to be a factor, too. That’s the biggest thing. It works both ways.”
The Raptors were not perfect, and there’s work to do to between games to ensure the prior Game 1 malaise doesn’t just transfer to Game 2. They did a reasonably good job on Beal and Wall outside of the transition game, hit more threes than they hit in any playoff game last year, and trusted the pass immensely. That’s a really good starting place to work from, and they can properly focus on the adjustments they’ll need to make from here rather than sweating being down in a series once again.
“It’s not a sigh. It’s a journey, it’s a marathon,” Casey said. “Whatever it was that first game was about, hopefully we got it off our back. But we’re not satisfied. We’re in this for the long run. We’re in a tough series against a very athletic, fast team, so we can’t, there’s not a sigh of relief. I think there was more made of it than anything else, so we just gotta go out and do what we do. I think 82 games is a good sample size of who we are.”
That sample suggests the Raptors should be able to do well with the unfamiliar control of the series they now have. It’s not a spot they’ve been in, because this season has been all about doing things a different way.