Here is a full list of team’s that have advanced past the first round in each of the last three seasons: Golden State, Toronto, and, if they win Game 7, Cleveland. That’s it. That’s a low bar, perhaps, but in punching their ticket to the second round once again with a 102-92 Game 6 victory over the Washington Wizards on Friday, the Raptors joined pretty rare company in a top-heavy NBA rich with parity in the middle. The Raptors closed out in six, as they set out to do, and while a quality Wizards team with a pair of legitimate All-Stars made it difficult, the Raptors largely took care of business.
Perhaps most notably, maligned playoff performers Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had solid series, embracing the new ethos outside of the fourth quarter of Game 4 and playing something close to even with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Lowry and DeRozan were never going to have to win this series, but playing those guard spots to a draw was necessary to allow Toronto’s depth advantage to shine. Wall was likely the best player in the series until Game 6, when Lowry had his most KLOE game of the series (outside of maybe the second half of Game 2). All told, you can call it a draw or give a slight edge to whatever side you prefer, but the Raptors’ did their job and should have at least quieted the narrative around their postseason play to some degree for the time being.
Proven Playoff Performers DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combine for 43.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 13.1 assists .450/.415/.800 shooting in the series
— Joe Wolfond (@joey_doubleyou) April 28, 2018
A big part of Toronto’s advantage outside of the stars came from not having to play them quite as much. The Wizards leaned very heavily on Wall and Beal, and it seemed to wear on them late in games. Wall played over 40 minutes for a third consecutive game here, and Beal played 43. For the series, Wall averaged 39 while Lowry, DeRozan, and Beal (who fouled out of Game 4 early) all averaged 36. Considering Wall was just coming back from a knee injury, that likely played a factor in the fourth quarters of games, and the Wizards don’t have the depth to limit his minutes without significant risk. They aren’t using that as a crutch, though.
“I don’t think the minutes were the deciding factor” Scott Brooks said. “I think they’re a really good team and they beat us fair and square. As tough as it is to say, they had a better year than us.”
Dwane Casey was not as firm in his assessment, giving plenty of credit to the Wizards and noting that they were down key pieces in Jodie Meeks and Otto Porter. He was diplomatic, as he had been all series in showing respect to Washington’s talent level.
“It was tough. I said it before we started: Closing out any series in any sport is probably the toughest thing you can do as an organization, as a team. No matter what sport. It’s tough” he said. “But we’re even-keeled. We want to enjoy it, celebrate it until midnight, I told the guys. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. We still have some playoff series to go hopefully. We’ve got to keep our mind on our business. And keep the main thing the main thing.
“Washington is a tough team. Well coached by Scotty. Some great competitors in John and Bradley, Gortat. I told him, I complained about his screens, but he’s one of the best in the league at setting them. And if the officials are not going to call it, keep setting it. They have a heck of a team. And I said it before we started: They’re not your typical eight seed. They’re well coached, well-oiled machine. Unfortunately they had some injuries at unfortunate times that put them in the eighth seed.”
There was a lot of talk of how the Wizards weren’t the “typical” eighth seed, and that’s true – they were projected to sniff 50 wins, Wall missed half a season, they would have been a trendy upset pick in a 2-7 matchup, and so on. Still, the Raptors were a dominant one seed with statistical comps who rarely struggled in the first round without injury. Beating Washington in a tight six-game series isn’t dominant, but it falls firmly in the range of reasonable outcomes for this series.
Nobody on the Raptors topped 33 minutes tonight, by the way.
The return of VanVleet, the return of the Bench Mob
A big part of what’s let the Raptors succeed without overtaxing their stars for a change this year has been incredible depth. That depth wasn’t always there in this series, as the bench bigs struggled some, Fred VanVleet was out due to injury, and Casey was left to try a lot of mixing and matching to get something other than the starters and Lowry-led bench units to work. On Friday, VanVleet returned, as did The Bench Mob proper.
“I’m still looking for that manual, that everyone says you can’t play the second unit,” Casey said, after trusting his all-bench group for a critical fourth-quarter stretch against several Washington starters, swinging the game in Toronto’s favor.
“He’s been fantastic,” Lowry said of Casey. “I think Coach has done a good job of making sure everyone gets their fair share of minutes when they earn them, and going with guys when they’re rolling. There have been games when we haven’t gone back in, or JV doesn’t play in the fourth, or Lucas plays the fourth, or Delon. The overall confidence we have in our group, Coach has instilled in us that this is a team and it’s not about individuals. It’s about team success. It’s the one thing he’s consistency done: Preach team-first and hard work. We all appreciate the hard work each guy does in the gym. So when we’re in this situation, if they’re playing well and get a chance to play, they’re going to play hard.”
In this case, he trusted the bench in both the second and the fourth, and the return of VanVleet helped lift everyone’s play. Delon Wright had another strong night to cap a very good two-way series, Jakob Poeltl found some second-half life after struggling in three or four of the earlier games, and Pascal Siakam turned in easily his best performance of the series. Siakam was flying around everywhere, finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds, and he did a heck of a job helping slow Wall down in the pivotal stretch. So what changes?
“I asked him, do you need Fred that badly?’” Casey half-joked. “As soon as you put Fred in, Pascal just blossomed.”
Casey jokes, but it was almost immediately clear how much a healthy VanVleet helps the second unit and hybrid groups. VanVleet still didn’t look all the way back – he was contesting with his left hand, his right shoulder was being treated during timeouts, and he checked out in the fourth in a situation where, at 100 percent, Casey surely would have stuck with him – but he looked close enough that the Raptors will have no qualms about rolling him – and a 10-man rotation – out in the next round. That is enormous for how this team wants to operate, even if Lowry and DeRozan still ultimately see more playing time as the playoffs move on.
- Fred VanVleet returned from injury and immediately went back to posting the best net rating on the team (okay, second to Pascal Siakam). He was a +12 in 19 minutes, scoring five points with four rebounds and four assists. It also sounded like the weight of the world has come off of his shoulders.
- “It’s been really tough. I’m a warrior, man,” he said. “And not being able to be out there and go to war with the guys, it’s been a tough two weeks.”
- Here’s Casey, on how his return changes things: “It’s nothing different from what we’ve done. Just added Freddy to the group. That’s the difference. I was trying not to make a big deal out of it while he was out to keep our other guys motivated. But he was the difference. That little group has a playing personality. He does make a difference with that group. He’s kind of the engine. The toughness. That little birdie on the should. I thought it really propelled Pascal and those other guys to give them a sense of confidence.”
- VanVleet remains one of the best stories of the NBA season, and I’m happy for him that he’s back, even if he admits he’s “nowhere close to 100 percent.”
- Otto Porter missed the game to have a procedure on his left leg to treat compartment syndrome, which sounds really serious. All the best to Porter heading into the offseason. He’s a terrific role player and a huge part of what Washington does when everything’s clicking.
- The Raptors starters were -3 in 15 minutes, the second game in a row they were a slight negative and the first in which they didn’t outscore Washington in the game’s opening minutes. They finished the series a solid positive and were a big enough positive over a large sample in the regular season that faith in the fivesome should remain pretty high heading into the second round. Of course, you don’t want to hear about the starters tonight.
- The Bench Mob was +8 in six minutes and a bench variation with Jonas Valanciunas in place of Jakob Poeltl was +5 in six minutes. Just a remarkable boost from a unit that was one of the league’s best all season but faced questions as to whether it could hold up against stiffer playoff competition and tighter rotations. For a night, the answer was a resounding yes.
- The DeRozan-and-bench groups continue to struggle, and there wasn’t really a Lowry-and-bench unit to speak of in this one.
- The Raptors began their close out with three point guards around Siakam and Valanciunas (+3 in three minutes) and then went to DeRozan in VanVleet’s place (+4 in four minutes). Wright becoming a full-time closer in this series was a nice boost with VanVleet limited, and the move to close with Valanciunas in Games 5 and 6 was the correct one.
- The Wizards starters were a +4 in 21 minutes. Mike Scott was finally a negative at -6 in 15 minutes, and while I wish him the best following a season that made for a great story, I never want to see him against the Raptors again.
- Dwane Casey got one last complaint in about Marcin Gortat’s screens, because Dwane Casey is the best.
- Somehow, this is the first time the Raptors have ever won a playoff series without losing a game at home. It was also the first they’ve ever won a road playoff game when trailing at half, improving to 1-23 in those scenarios.
- Scott Brooks on Casey: “In my humble opinion, he’s the coach of the year.”
- Markieff Morris on the series: “Sometimes the better teams don’t win.” Me on the series: “And sometimes they do.”
- John Wall’s comments after elimination are sure to rub some fans or teammates the wrong way: “For me and Brad, we can keep getting better, improving our game and our conditioning…It’s up to our front office to add the pieces they think we need to make our team better and more complete.” Sounds vaguely familiar.
A sub-heading of its own
Delon Wright ended the game by blocking Kelly Oubre. You can’t even write endings that good.
Wright promised he’d have a quote for Oubre after Game 6 when informed of Oubre’s comments the other day and he came through.
“That was the highlight of my series, to get him back,” he said. “I was happy I was able to get him back.”
Oubre went 1-of-7 for three points in 26 minutes, by the way.
The Indiana Pacers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, evening that series up at 3-3. That’s about a best-case scenario for the Raptors, who will now have at least three days off to recover and begin game-planning for the second round. Game 7 from that series will go Sunday, and while the league hasn’t released the possible scenarios, the Raptors would seem likely to be back in action on Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy a stress-free Sunday that doesn’t include a Game 7.
Asked if they have a preferred second round opponent, DeRozan offered a stern “No,” to which Lowry said “You hear that? He answered the question.”