Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan prepared OG Anunoby for this. Entering the rookie’s first year in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors’ star back court told him there would be ups and there would be downs, and how he navigated those over a long season would determine his success. On the eve of the playoffs, then, Anunoby knew what to expect, sounding like a player who’d been with the Raptors through their last four playoff runs rather than one of the new pieces added to make a fifth one different.
“It won’t ever be smooth,” he said.
And it may be the only time he’s missed the mark through his first two playoff games. Things have not been easy for the Raptors, to be clear, but in running, then tumbling, than flat out sprinting to a 130-119 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, they’ve given themselves a 2-0 series lead for the first time in franchise history, maintaining their home-court advantage and putting the Wizards on the brink of desperation – though they won’t concede as much – as the series heads back to Washington. These aren’t the Playoff Raptors. At least not yet. They’ve never taken care of their business like this, literally, and they’ve never provided more room for optimism heading deeper into the postseason.
Anunoby has been at the heart of it. His defense against Bradley Beal and John Wall has been focused, effortful, and as effective as the team could hope up against a pair of All-Stars. He’s knocked down open threes, hit the glass more than in the regular season, and is mastering the art of the baseline cut for easy buckets at the rim or free throws. That he hasn’t necessarily earned rave reviews speaks to the height of the bar here and the rising expectations for the team as a whole. Beal shot 3-of-11 in Game 2, posted the worst plus-minus of any Raptors playoff opponent ever, and the Raptors are avoiding any sense of happiness on the farm or fatness and sassiness.
“I think he’s missed some good looks. I don’t know if we’ve done anything special, I think he’s missed some good shots,” Dwane Casey said. “OG’s done a decent job. Everybody’s guarded him, attention to detail, but we haven’t stopped him. He’s had some good looks.”
Make no mistake, Anunoby was good. And he was maybe the least notable starter on a night when Toronto’s primary unit bludgeoned the Wizards’ starters once again. The defense of Anunoby and Kyle Lowry helped set the tone, but this one was an offensive assault. Jonas Valanciunas made Marcin Gortat look every one of his 34 years of age, Serge Ibaka made the most of the space he’s being given in the pick-and-pop, Lowry did everything but knock down threes – his weird playoff shooting splits continue to persist and mask, to some, that Lowry has been in full KLOE mode for basically the entirety of the series so far – and DeMar DeRozan turned in maybe his best playoff game ever.
DeRozan was artful in his approach to attacking Washington’s pick-and-roll, and his post-game analogy of feeling like Neo could hardly be more apt. The game appeared to be moving slow enough that Kobe Bryant could narrate the possessions in real-time, and every Wizards’ adjustment was plain to DeRozan. They trapped, as is their prerogative, and DeRozan found his bigs. Valanciunas was 8-of-11 and had a 19-and-14 double-double in just 23 minutes, the type of performance that welcomes Scott Brooks’ suggestion that the Wizards could start small next time out. The Wizards switched, and DeRozan split through defenders to get to the rim. They tried guarding his pick-and-rolls 2-on-2 with a drop-back, and DeRozan stuck jumpers, hitting three thees for just the second time in his postseason career. And when they trailed over top, DeRozan exploited the woeful lack of rim protection, shooting 5-of-6 in the restricted area and 3-of-5 in floater range.
He’d finish with 37 points using just 29 offensive possessions, and he’d dish four assists and a secondary assist, and he and Lowry have combined for a whopping 55 potential assists through two games (they averaged a combined 22.6 per-game in the regular season). The game as a whole maybe didn’t display the culture reset quite as obviously as Game 1 – the Raptors had “just” 24 assists and 13 threes after a 26-assists, 16-triple performance in Game 1 – but it couldn’t have done a better job of putting DeRozan’s growth as a scorer and playmaker, and his ability to switch between this roles seamlessly.
“I just let the game come to me, flow of the game. I go based off that. These days, it’s not like I have to have the mindset of scoring 30 or 40 points. I go out there and play aggressive,” DeRozan said.
“You had 37, what do you mean?” Lowry responded incredulously, starting an amusing back-and-forth. “I’m just saying, you scored 37. Don’t say it like you didn’t. All I’m saying is you can’t go out there and say you didn’t get 37.”
“Listen to me,” DeRozan said. “I didn’t go out there planning to score 37 points. I went out there to be aggressive. And with my aggressiveness came those 37 points.”
DeRozan’s offensive explosion began from the outset, with a 13-point first quarter that had the Raptors ahead by as many as 21 and ultimately setting a postseason franchise record for points with 44. They’d set their record for points in a half with five minutes still to play, and they would survive Washington’s first initial push back. By the end of the night, they’d hung 130 with a 122 offensive rating, shooting 51.7 percent from the floor, edging Washington at the free-throw line (the officials were far more liberal with the whistle both ways compared to Game 1), and winning the rebounding battle decisively, which helped to neutralize a still-present penchant for turning the ball over and kick-starting Wall’s attack.
Like Anunoby predicted, it wasn’t smooth, despite the final score. The bench outside of C.J. Miles and Delon Wright struggled once again, and with Fred VanVleet looking “tentative” and getting the hook after three minutes in the second quarter, Casey had to reach to all depths of his bench for a spark, and unlike in Game 1, almost nothing worked. Norman Powell did some nice things while playing as the nominal power forward but the Wizards went on a run anyway, Lorenzo Brown hit a three and threw Pascal Siakam a lob but couldn’t slow Washington’s fourth-quarter push, and Lucas Nogueira may have set a record for quickest minus-19 in NBA history (don’t ever let him play would-be garbage time). The Wizards cut what was once a 23-point lead all the way down to five with eight minutes to go, their second major push-back of the night involving Ty Lawson and Mike Scott. It was tense, and allowing Washington to complete the comeback could have been a heck of a momentum swing for the entire series.
“Well, I liked the way the starters responded,” Casey said. “Our second unit has gotta come in with a sense of urgency and some toughness that they’ve shown all year. We can’t run up the minutes for our starters extensively. They had some good moments but not enough. Not enough. Not enough. I liked the way the starters came in. I liked the way Serge battled down the stretch. Kyle and DeMar did an excellent job. But we’ve gotta get some more guys to join the party.”
Again, the Raptors’ new mentality made itself known, as instead of folding or tightening up, the Raptors simply put things away. Miles stuck a ludicrously deep pull-up three late in the clock to save a possession, Wright pinned a Wall drive against the backboard, and DeRozan stuck a mid-range jumper to get back out ahead by double-digits. The Wizards got into the penalty with over five minutes left, and while the Raptors initially had some trouble scoring in the half-court while small, the defensive intensity got dialed up for the first time since their early-game dominance. Ibaka spiked a Beal attempt off the backboard to try to one-up Wright and get Miles going the other way, and on the next possession DeRozan saved a loose ball from going out of bounds, tipping it to Lowry to throw an alley-oop pass to Wright to effectively end the game.
“I was nervous. I felt like I was about to drop the ball or something when he threw it because it was a little slippery. It was a big moment in the game I just tried to keep the crowd into it,” Wright said of the alley-oop finish. “I think that was my first one. I’m usually the one throwing it. Yeah, that was probably my first one. It was a good time to get it.”
It was emphatic, if not entirely smooth. Were it not for the early flurry (blizzard?), the Raptors may not have come away so cleanly (that happened, of course). Washington shot the ball well and produced uncontested looks at nearly the same rate Toronto did, and the Raptors have not defended exceptionally well through two games despite some strong individual efforts. Washington has two days to adjust, and if they are less fragile than it appears from the outside, they’ll once again present a stiff challenge Toronto will need to be ready for. These are the playoffs, and two more wins can be an eternity if the requisite urgency is lost.
“We have an opportunity to take advantage of the situation that we’re in,” Lowry said. “We know they’re going to come out a long hungrier, a lot more physical on their home court. We know they want to protect their home floor. We’ve done our job on our home floor. Now we’ve got to go out there with the momentum of shooting the ball well, guys playing well, we feed off of each other extremely well. Our defense has to be a lot better. They shot the ball extremely well. They shot 48 per cent from the field, 45 per cent from three. We’ve got to play a lot better defense. We know we can.”
If they do, it may turn out the advice given to Anunoby was a little off-base. It’s never gone this well for the Raptors so early, and “smooth” has never been so within reach.