The Raptors took care of business at home in Games 1 and 2. Yes, a 2-0 series lead was the first franchise history and it felt oddly unsettling; but, franchise history aside, as a first seed, the Raptors were expected to win those games. They were more than 7-point favourites going into each of them. So, one on hand, while the Raptors are probably thinking they have a series lead despite last night’s loss, if this playoff series was a set of tennis, we’re merely on serve.
Last night was a grim reminder of what some Raptor fans were worried about when the prospect of facing the Wizards became a reality at the regular season’s end. In start contrast to Games 1 and 2, the Wizards’ top-end talent both performed at high levels, which set the tone for the rest of the team to play a clearly more spirited form of basketball. John Wall was a blur on line drives to the basket, and Bradley Beal’s masterful work of the screen-and-roll made for a disastrous defensive night. The Wizards shot 50+% for basically the entire game and seemed to overwhelm Toronto every time they’d attempt to make a run. It was a terrible defensive showing against a team that, just a few days ago, was still trying to find an identity.
The turning point appeared to be in the second quarter for the Wizards, a quarter in which they scored 39 points. It was then when we finally saw some life on both ends of the floor for Washington in this series, and a more inspired brand of basketball featuring their all-star backcourt. The crowd got into the game, and with Fred VanVleet out, the Raptors’ bench looked like they just let their guard down. From Jakob, to Norm, to Bebe, Dwane Casey searched deep into his roster for answers once again, but the second unit just couldn’t add the type of spark we’re using to seeing from them. The starters, who were virtually all a minus for the game, weren’t much better either.
Despite fears from some Raptor fans coming into the playoffs that their motion, pace-and-space and bench-heavy offense won’t work in the playoffs, I think it’s clear after 3 games that it’s not necessarily the style of play that will be the issue (the Raptors have scored over 100 points in each of those games, and have averaged over 23 assists). It probably won’t even matter who is actually on the floor in terms of lineups. Rather, it’ll be things like attention to detail, the concentration to avoid turnovers, and the discipline to limit defensive lapses that’ll be more important…in other words, it’ll be the same problems every other playoff team (even favourites) go through.
Take the turnovers from last night as an example: most of them actually came on passes or some sort of action going toward the basket. That’s not a bad thing to attempt to do, but with lapses in concentration, or just laziness, those same passes become turnovers. And those turnovers (19 to be exact) led to 28 Wizards points.
Going into game 4 though – will the Raptors stick to their game plan or change things up? It’s obvious Washington’s talent had to give them a boost at some point, so there’s no need for the Raps to get down on themselves after a loss like that. Toronto’s offensive schemes actually seemed to be generating good shots for most of the night, and turnovers (many of which were unforced) is something that can be corrected. Defense, which has been the Raptors’ calling card all season, is obviously a function of effort. So, barring another huge mental hurdle like we saw in Milwaukee last year, that should be able to be rectified as well. For those reasons, I wouldn’t expect any major lineup changes or rotation adjustments (save for Fred coming back, of course).
It’ll also be interesting, from a defensive scheming perspective, to see how Dwane Casey responds to the strong exhibition by Washington’s backcourt. Keeping Wall from attacking on line drives to the cup, contesting his mid-range 2’s, and guarding Bradley Beal off of screen-and-roll action ought to continue to be a priority for Raptors defenders. You stop at least one of those guys, and you’re probably going to win.
Probably the most important thing going into Game 4 though, will be the Raptors’ mentality. Last year in the first round, it was all about finally winning a playoff series in under 7 games – much was made about the Raptors’ mental fragility in the playoffs, and the inability to put the Bucks away easily perpetuated a long-standing narrative about the Raptors under-performing in the playoffs. And now, the test will be if they can win a series in under 6 games. The Wizards have won 7 straight home games in the post-season though, and have clearly shown the ability to fight through adversity and win on their home floor. For the Raptors, losing Game 4 would give the Wizards all the momentum in the series, and would put tremendous pressure on Toronto for Game 5 at home – another stressful situation we know all too well about. If you want to shut the haters up though, and finally validate the narrative of a successful playoff run, it’ll be on the Raptors to lace ’em up and fix those fixable mistakes.