There was no way around nerves on Wednesday. On one of the biggest sporting nights in the city’s history, the Toronto Raptors played host to the Washington Wizards for Game 5 of their first-round series, a game that historically dictates a great deal about how a seven-game series will turn out. Outside the Air Canada Centre, thousands of fans braved the rain in Maple Leaf Square, watching not just the Raptors but the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto FC in huge games, as well. The Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Marlies, and TFC II were all in action, too. The Raptors would have the first crack at setting the tone for the evening. They tipped off first, they’d finish first, and of all the teams and situations involved, they did not have the highest stakes but certainly held the highest expectations. They were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, being pushed to the brink by a very good No. 8, and like with the Leafs in a 3-1 series comeback against the Boston Bruins, the jokes would have written themselves.
They’ll have to be put aside for a few days – or rounds – longer after the Raptors pulled out a 108-98 victory, allowing the ACC to exhale momentarily before the screens inside and out flipped to a heartbreaking Leafs end. And the Raptors did so just barely, playing touch-and-go, bodies-on-the-floor basketball for three-and-a-half quarters and not giving the impression at all until very late that they were in control of the game. It took, as is apparently now the standard, a uniquely unfamiliar lineup to find the necessary spark, it took DeMar DeRozan expertly switching between roles late, and it took Delon Wright stepping into a huge moment after dozens of fans and family and friends pleaded with him to play with this kind of confidence.
And it took head coach Dwane Casey finally putting his faith – maybe, his fate – in Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas is the one who’s been here all along, always starting, rarely closing, and often looking over his shoulder to see what trade, what small-ball lineup, or what scheme may push him out of the team’s plans. He has resolutely stayed the team-first path, navigating the ups and downs as best as he can, though sometimes his emotion has betrayed how difficult that is. This year has been different, and the same. He’s been at his career best and utilized more by volume and style, and he’s still closed sparingly. Until Wednesday, he hadn’t played a fourth-quarter minute in the series despite owning the team’s best net rating. So when Casey called on him with his two stars – and Wright, and C.J. Miles as a small-ball four – late, a lot of the narrative of Valanciunas in this particular series hung in the balance. Play your best players or, if you prefer, sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.
Casey’s faith was rewarded, not that there should have been a great deal of doubt. The strangers-in-a-fivesome clicked, the Wizards started missed everything they could put up, and a raucous close-out saw the Raptors wrestle back their grasp on the series. At the heart of it were, like in Games 1 and 2, tent-poles of the culture reset – better ball movement, confidence from beyond the arc, empowering of a young bench piece, and faith in Valanciunas.
“Every game is a different game. I was just ready to play. I was ready to do my job,” Valanciunas said. “My job is to set good screens. We have such good players as DeMar and Kyle who can use those screens and make my life much easier if I set a good screen. I’m gonna get open. Just doing my job. End of the game, start of the game, it doesn’t matter what time it is. I know what I need to do.”
First, the nerves. As someone who runs angsty as a base state, this was a lot.
The Raptors did what they’ve done every game in the series, at least, and got out to a lead early on. The Wizards threatened that by opening on a 4-0 run that left a still-filling up ACC quiet, but DeRozan had a nice spinning finish in transition and then hit a cutting Lowry, and OG Anunoby and Valanciunas both came through with big blocks. For the fifth game in a row, Scott Brooks was taking a somewhat early timeout, and while 13-8 was the smallest of Washington’s first-quarter deficits, a tight game is always a little easier with an early cushion. That would maintain deep into the quarter, with Valanciunas and Marcin Gortat trading fun buckets and DeRozan cruising to 13 first-quarter points.
“I thought he took what the game gave him,” Casey said of DeRozan. “I don’t think he forced anything, I don’t think he was trying to do too much. He was in the paint, it was in the shot spectrum, so I thought he did a good job in those situations of getting to where he wanted to go with the basketball.”
Slippage came late in the frame when the usual DeRozan-and-bench unit couldn’t get anything to drop, letting the Wizards pull ahead thanks in large part to their offensive rebounding. The Raptors were unspeakably bad on their own glass when Valanciunas sat in this one, and it was a key factor in Washington hanging around through the first half despite the Raptors shooting better and cutting out their turnover issues from earlier in the series. Even when an all-bench look with Norman Powell narrowly won a bench-versus-bench stretch, it was littered with Wizards second (and third, and even fourth) chances. A Lowry-and-bench look lasted only long enough for a Jakob Poeltl dunk, and DeRozan returned to follow that with a dunk off of a Lowry steal. The Raptors edged ahead by six, a couple of iffy calls fell the wrong way, and the Wizards stars began answering Toronto’s. The Raptors held a one-point lead entering the break, but it was tenuous given Washington’s massive edge on the boards.
“The rebounding. They crushed us on rebounds,” Lowry said, explaining his post-game perusal of the stat sheet. “I always look at our team assists. That’s a big thing for us, our assists and the rebounds. Other than that, you look at the turnovers and stuff like that. We only had 10 turnovers tonight. They outrebounded us. They had eight more shots than us, which we can’t give up. A team like that, giving them second chances always takes a little bit of oomph from us. Those type of things. For us, our goal was to shoot 30 threes. We didn’t get to our goal tonight. We’ve gotta get a couple more threes up.”
DeRozan was once again in dominant scorer mode in the third, eventually pushing to 30 points through three frames on solid efficiency. Bradley Beal and John Wall, though, kept hitting – Wall continued his preposterous mid-range shooting in the series – and it was only a cleaning up of the possession game (turnovers and rebounds) that kept Toronto from falling behind. The third quarter felt like one sustained Wizards run, but a different DeRozan-and-bench combination held tight, Toronto dished 10 assists, and they managed to stay ahead one entering the fourth. Casey curiously went to his all-bench group, quickly pivoted when Washington trotted Beal out to join Wall in a hybrid group, and things looked dire with the Raptors down five and 8:52 to go, momentum against them to whatever degree momentum exists.
“We’re trying to get something. You’re searching, you’re trying to pull strings, and we had some guys that didn’t have their best games at that position tonight and we were searching,” Casey said. “Some key rebounds, but the key was Jonas did a good job of moving his feet, guarding Morris, guarding their small lineup, which was huge. And that gave us an opportunity to stay with that lineup. But I thought C.J. was huge at the four.”
And so Casey turned to the unlikely lineup, and he turned to Valanciunas and Wright. Promptly, Wright picked Wall’s pocket and went the distance for a layup. Then Valanciunas picked Wall’s pocket, leading to an emphatic DeRozan slam the other way. Things began clicking, and with four minutes left, it was a one-point Raptors lead. That was the time for Wright’s big shoot-your-shot moment, and he canned a 30-footer without so much as a thought. A possession later, DeRozan found him on the break for a floating alley-oop layup, sending Washington scrambling to a timeout. The Wizards would have looks from there – Beal missed a three, Markieff Morris lost an offensive rebound out of bounds, Wall, Kelly Oubre, and Otto Porter all missed threes as part of an 0-for-8 stretch – but Toronto made sure they were out of rhythm looks and Valanciunas cleaned up the misses. Valanciunas then tipped in an offensive rebound and Miles, quiet from outside to that point, delivered the dagger.
“It was great,” Casey said. “Jonas gave us some big minutes in the fourth quarter. We had the matchups that we liked in that situation. But I thought Delon Wright did a good job down the stretch, handling the ball, gave us an opportunity for Kyle and DeMar to get off the ball a little bit more, and I thought that was the difference.”
It wasn’t the lineup anybody necessarily expected to close with. The Raptors’ hybrid lineups with two or three bench players haven’t been particularly effective this year, and it’s tough to turn to the unfamiliar in a high-leverage spot. On paper, though, the group makes sense – there’s space provided by Lowry and Miles, an elite screen-setter and rebounder in Valanciunas, and an extra ball-handler in Wright. DeRozan, meanwhile, shifted perfectly into decoy and facilitator, striking the perfect balance in his role all game. There was a freedom with which the Raptors played down the stretch, simply rolling the ball out and letting a group consisting of their best players in the series so far (save for Anunoby) play.
“I thought our ball movement was better. We had what, 26 assists? Which was much better, ball movement was much better, body movement was better,” Casey said. “We know that they’re a tough opponent. They’re athletic, they’re quick. But we had some uncharacteristic turnovers in Washington that hopefully we got out of our system. We know that Friday’s gonna be a battle at their place. I thought our crowd was great tonight, made it a hostile environment. We’re going to their place in the same situation.”
Toronto will need to be better on Friday, full stop. There were a number of moments where this one could have gotten away from them, and the bench simply has to do better not to give up second chances. The Wizards probably won’t shoot 5-of-26 on threes again, Beal has played significantly better at home, and the Raptors haven’t strung together long enough stretches to really control a game since the first half of Game 2. Winning a playoff series against a good team is hard, it turns out. Game 5 was instrumental to that end, and to the end of quelling a whole lot of anxiety after consecutive losses.