John Wall arrived at the podium after Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors rocking his usual swag: navy-blue blazer, shades with the same color tint, a striped T-shirt with a bumble bee on the front, a confidence that toes the line of arrogance. Bradley Beal was a bit more formal in a grey suit jacket, navy blue vest and navy-blue tie. There was no difference in their demeanors, though.
The Washington Wizards have become notorious for showing up when they want to. There are nights when their dynamic backcourt look like world beaters, and others where they’d rather be on vacation.
The pair haven’t lost a first-round series in three tries, going 12-3 over that span heading into this series. Yet’ here they are, playing the highest-seeded team in the first round. They insist the Cleveland Cavaliers fear them, but have never made a Conference Finals appearance. There is a clear distinction between playoff pretender and contender, and the pair of Wizards’ all-stars have yet to make the transition despite more wins in the postseason than the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-led Raptors.
Toronto has said repeatedly that they are not facing a “regular” eighth seed, and the audacity the Wizards showed in allowing themselves to finish the season 3-9 hoping to play a depleted Celtics team or a Raptors squad they thought they had a mental edge over shows the confidence they have in who they really think they are.
So, it should be a shock to no one when Candace Buckner of the Washington Post asked Wall if it was surprising to see someone like Delon Wright step in and make 7-of-10 shots, and Wall responded, “Yeah, totally, I think their bench was great,” Wall said. “Especially them with C.J. Miles, they play well… [If] that’s what they’re going to do every game, got to make adjustments.”
Some of his doubt as to whether Toronto’s reserves could do this on the big stage is understandable. The backups haven’t really done so in the past, and the Wizards were clearly banking on history coming through for them again.
When Wright checked into the game with 2:45 remaining in the first quarter and the Raptors leading by six, Wall looked at him like he saw a fresh batch of barbeque chicken and went right at him.
Wright does an impressive job staying with the Wizards point guard, before receiving some timely help from Jakob Poeltl under the basket. Neither a surprise for those who have watched the pair defend this season. The tone was set, though, Wall was coming for blood.
On the Wizards’ next offensive possession, the Wizards went to the pick-and-roll with Markieff Morris, looking to take away Poeltl’s sneaky help. Wall’s subtle hesitation combined with the threat of getting to the basket at a moment’s notice are what make him such a nightmare to defend, so you can consider it a playoff baptism by fire when he’s able to find Morris on the lob.
Wall continues the PnR success by getting an and-one with a lefty layup as he turns on the jets after Poeltl gets too deep, allowing the 27-year-old all-star to build a head of steam. This is Wall at his best. Big men at the mercy of his every head tilt, stutter step and jab. On the other side of the ball, Wright received no attention behind the three-point line (missing his first shot), and turned the ball over with an offensive foul trying to go right back at Wall.
It looked, early on, that the confidence the Wizards had in daring the Raptors’ role players to be great was validated.
Wall had to check out of the game at some point, though, and he finally did so with a minute remaining in the first quarter. Matched up against Tomas Satoransky, Wright’s confidence looked receive a bump. He made a good move into the paint courtesy of a behind-the-back dribble followed by an up-and-under that rimmed out. After a Miles three-pointer and a pair of Siakam free-throws, Wright was dared to shoot from beyond the arc, again, this time canning the straight-on look for a 39-31 Toronto lead.
Wall soon checked back with 8:20 remaining, but it appeared that time was all Wright needed to get in a flow. Like a sharpshooter that only needs to see the ball go in the basket once, the time matched up with Satoransky appeared to do him a world of good.
Wright found Poeltl on a lob and then disrupted the Wizards in transition by deflecting a Wall pass to the corner. The big picture shows that the Wizards went on a 13-0 run after the Poeltl lob, but the optics need to be considered with context. It was Kyle Lowry who was now guarding Wall, and he and Jonas Valanciunas were the ones getting picked apart.
In the third, Wright returned to the ball game 15 seconds later than he did in the first quarter, while Wall exited a whole minute earlier. The former Utah Ute got that quality time matched up against Satoransky on offence, but had to manage Bradley Beal on the other end. He created a corner three for Pascal Siakam, and battled Mike Scott in the post successfully. His final opportunity to attack Satoransky in the quarter came with 9:57 remaining, and he finished with a reverse lay-in courtesy of a healthy screen from Lucas Nogueira. Wall checked back in 30 seconds later.
This is when Dwane Casey turned to Lowry on Beal and Wright on Wall and after a couple of easy baskets for the Wizards, it truly was the Lowry and Wright show. Siakam deserves special mention here as well, as he was great guarding either when switched onto them.
Trailing by one with under eight minutes remaining, Wright forced a turnover with a steal on an attempted pass to Wall, proceeded to hit a three-pointer on the other end, then added a tough runner after attacking Gortat off a pick-and-roll. After combining with Nogueira to get a rare Wall-Gortat PnR stop, he poked the ball away on a Kelly Oubre defensive rebound which led to the huge Miles three-pointer for a 103-96 lead.
That, in effect, made Wright responsible for all eight points Toronto scored in a four minute span where Wall had neither a point nor an assist. It was the Raptors’ game to lose from there on, and they didn’t.
There was plenty of talk coming into the game about whether Fred VanVleet, the Sixth Man of the Year candidate who was undrafted and hardly a factor just a season ago, would play. It’s a credit to him that he’s become such a key cog in the Raptors’ egalitarian system, but Wright has been biding his time ever since being selected 20th overall in 2015. This was his moment, and after some trying times early, that little window of opportunity against a lesser guard was all he needed to hit his stride.
Confidence is as fleeting in its absence as it seems endless in its presence, and when the moment came, Wright was able to snatch at it like the elusive golden snitch in a Quidditch match.
“I thought he (Delon) did a good job,” Casey said after the game. “I thought he was in attack mode, knocked down some shots. He’s been shooting the ball really well in practice. The three-ball where they tried to go under him, I thought that was really effective. Just him getting the ball out of Kyle’s hands a little bit, letting Kyle spot up is what we were looking for and he did an excellent job at that and it’s the same thing he’s been doing the entire year.”
The Wizards may or may not believe it, but that’s the truth. To a man, this bench unit has served as one of Toronto’s biggest assets. Sure, 53.3 percent shooting from deep will be difficult to maintain as the series wears on, but the confidence with which they take those shots is the difference in the Raptors this year.
“There’s a lot of guys, who, we didn’t expect them to make those threes,” Beal said after the game. “They made them, but we live with those.”
Not expecting them to make them is one thing, but there is no doubt now that this Toronto bench unit will take what’s given to them. Whether it was Wright on this night, or VanVleet, Miles, Siakam, Poeltl, Nogueira or Powell the next, this bench is built to show up every night. This is the swag they bring.