The first quarter of Game 2 needs to be made into a Netflix special. Catch-and-shoot finishing, assists aplenty, fast-breaks, forced turnovers, and even a JV three. The big lead gave way to the natural inclination to play on the back foot and defend the lead rather than expand on it. Early leads can give rise to an impostor syndrome of sorts where you look around and know that you’re not “really” 22 points better than Washington. The free-flowing basketball is morphed into something of a cautious cat-and-mouse game where you’re focused on retained earnings rather than growth, while the shooting averages regress to the mean.
“Sometimes thinking too much can destroy your momentum”, Tom Watson once said, and the Raptors may have been guilty of that to some extent as the game wore on and they became static in offense while the Wizards grew into ascendancy. Afterward, when it was down to a 5-point game, a different blend of basketball than what was on offer in the first quarter won them the game. The Raptors were able to effectively cope with two types of pace in the first and fourth (105 vs 116, respectively). Where the first was about mimicking GSW East, the fourth was about possession basketball, slowing down the clock, and relying on your star player. The second and third were just transitions between the two styles.
Versatile personnel allow the Raptors to play multiple styles as we’ve seen all year, but the joy of seeing it translate to the post-season is something that wasn’t always there. Watching DeMar DeRozan execute on a variety of high-percentage shots to a tune of 10 fourth quarter points with the defense all over him is what many of us, perhaps prematurely, had expected him to do years ago against the Nets. The four years of labour in between has given rise to not just a more skillful player, but one that knows how and when to pick his spots. As the Raptors go deeper into the playoffs, it’s those stretches where you have to take punches, bend-but-not-break, and ultimately respond with some daggers of your own, that will define how far this team will go. So far, the results have been very positive. This was briefly discussed in the post-game podcast.
You could feel the crowd getting anxious as they measured the Raptors against their early 22-point lead for the remainder of the game. As the lead was coming down to 15, then 12, 10, 8 and finally 5, you knew there was always going to be a toe-to-toe moment where one side would deliver the knockout blow. That blow came in the form of a C.J Miles three, a Delon Wright block, and another DeRozan score. The glorious sequence below:
While checking my nerves through the second to fourth quarters, I realized that this was the most confident I have ever been of the Raptors pulling this through, and it’s because we implicitly trust them to do the right thing most of the time.
The game underlined the Wizards advantage in backcourt quickness, with Ty Lawson giving the Raptors something to think about off the bounce and from distance. With John Wall already in form, this poses a significant threat, but Dwane Casey has options to tweak things such as retaining more shot-blocking, throwing different looks (maybe Norm?), putting bigger defenders on guards who can afford to sag back, etc. Or make no change whatsoever and let Washington test the odds of their bench scoring 63 points again. Whatever the strategy may be, there’s a higher level of confidence that the Raptors will get it right.
Even when the Raptors go “big” with JV or “small” with Ibaka/Bebe at the five, there seems to be very little in the way of trade-offs that Casey has to make, to the point where I’d love to see what a random sampling of big vs. small lineups would produce against a random sampling of opponents. I’d venture that the overall aggregated results will be very similar. Whatever lever Casey has pulled to make Marcin Gortat absolutely useless is welcome, and it’s probably a combination of, 1) the younger JV’s strength and athleticism dominating him inside on offense, 2) Gortat not being able to find the right “roll” lanes, and 3) with the Wizards guards dominating the ball, not enough ball-time in the post for Gortat to establish himself. Whatever the case, one of the main pain points on the Wizards appears to have been neutralized, partially by his own team who are adamant on playing outside-in, as further evidenced by them seemingly ignoring Markieff Morris’s offense in Game 2. The most miserable of Gortat’s sequence came early in Game 2 when he had the rebound stolen away from him, blew the layup, and had JV hit a three on him:
As the Raptors examine the landscape for game 3 and beyond, they should expect their percentages to decline on the road, and the Wizards to look at quarters 2-4 from Game 2 as a template to follow. Fortunately for the Raptors, they have the confidence, personnel, and star players to adapt to the occasion.