There had to be a bench game.
The real world rarely operates as you’d like it to for narrative purposes. Life is not so serendipitous, and basketball is far too complex a game for the bows that wrap games and playoff series to be tied so neatly. Still, the Eastern Conference playoff bracket has set up so well for the Toronto Raptors to have a storybook spring. If nothing else, the Washington Wizards in the first round offered a reasonable first battle on the hero’s quest, an opportunity to avenge the most depressing of defeats. It was the Wizards who swept the Raptors three years ago and helped create the “Playoff Raptors” narrative that the team has been fighting to overcome ever since, and it was the Wizards who stood as the first test of a remade Raptors team, their culture reset, their stars, in theory, no longer as susceptible to postseason swoons.
Hard things are hard, and the Raptors coughed up two earlier games in Washington. The first, a blowout, was not entirely unexpected. A sweep was unlikely, even with analytics and oddsmakers heavily in Toronto’s favorite. The second, a late-game collapse with all the bad habits of old on display, was a legitimate threat. The wins, though, were bookending those defeats with the story the Raptors have been trying to tell all year. There was greater 3-point volume, improved ball-movement, a better DeMar DeRozan, a KLOE Kyle Lowry, a big-time rookie in OG Anunoby, fourth-quarter minutes for the best Jonas Valanciunas yet, the starters being dominant, and rarely used lineups being called upon, all to highlight the new ways beyond “grind it out and hope the stars get it done” the team can win.
There hadn’t been a bench game, though. Delon Wright had been solid-to-great throughout the series, C.J. Miles closed a couple of games, and Lucas Nogueira had his seemingly monthly moment, but there hadn’t been a game where the league’s best bench really swung a game. This was maybe to be expected. Benches are supposed to be less valuable in the postseason, and the Raptors were without that groups’ quarterback in Fred VanVleet. Depth is important for a lot of reasons beyond having a five-man unit a team can trot out, and still it felt like the one thing missing from this series. If the Raptors are taking care of narratives and winning a series in all the ways they’ve changed this season, a game in which the second unit picks them up simply couldn’t be a part of it.
Re-enter VanVleet, and re-enter The Bench Mob. The real world rarely operates as you’d like it to for narrative purposes. And sometimes, it does.
Friday’s 102-92 series-clinching victory wasn’t only about the bench. Lowry was the best player on the floor by a significant margin and Valanciunas came through in an unfamiliar role in the second quarter to help keep things afloat. On a night the Raptors couldn’t hit threes, DeRozan was a little off his game, and Serge Ibaka was only a rumor, the Raptors needed eventually needed their bench. The way they came through was in stark contrast to how the Wizards operated, with no Raptor topping 33 minutes and Lowry and DeRozan looking fresh as can be when closing out the game against an exhausted Bradley Beal, topping 43 minutes, and John Wall, topping 40 for a third consecutive game. This was all too familiar in recent years, and it’s the trust and empowerment of the team’s youth and depth that allowed them to close it out on the road.
“It was great to have the full bench back, to have Freddie back out there with them guys, that was big,” DeRozan said. “Think that changed the momentum for us once he came in the game, the way the bench played in the fourth quarter defensively and offensively. It’s something that they’ve been doing all year. It was great for us to be able to see that, it was just a testament to what they did all year carrying over to the playoffs.”
Things started out shaky. For the first time in the series, Washington was the team to pull ahead early on, tearing off a 7-0 run to force an early Dwane Casey timeout. Lowry looked like he’d be in full KLOE mode from the start, but defensive rebounding was once again proving an early issue (even with Valanciunas), and DeRozan opened the game 1-of-6, pressing a little bit. The Wizards lead hit 12 before the Raptors managed any kind of push-back, and even when Lowry and DeRozan found Ibaka for buckets, Mike Scott was there to answer with impossible end-of-clock pull-ups. The Toronto defense was spotty and a little careless, and the frequent misses on offense were fueling an eager Washington transition attack. Scott finished the opening frame with eight points, and 10-point Wizards lead looked daunting with the Raptors finishing poorly in the paint and not getting an initial bench spark.
VanVleet got the call at the top of the second, and while it certainly wasn’t all him, the tone of the game changed. Playing alongside Valanciunas since Jakob Poeltl had early foul trouble, a new-look bench mob – stalo draugai? – helped the Raptors get back into things, with Delon Wright unleashing a floater, Valanciunas coming through with a tip-in and a lob finish from VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam and Valanciunas teaming up to finally take Scott out of a comfort zone. An 8-2 run in just over two minutes forced the Wizards to go back to Wall, and Wright promptly kept the momentum up by swiping a pass and sending Siakam for a dunk. Only a brief Markieff Morris flurry – after getting into it with the Raptors bench, naturally – precluded Toronto from pulling even, and a small Wizards run was countered by Poeltl and the Raptors’ starters to keep the team within three at the half.
“Super comfortable,” VanVleet said. “That’s just kinda the person I am, the player I am. On the road, hostile environment. I just wanted to be a support guy out there to kinda ease the storm a little bit. Running the team and playing defense and stuff, I can do those things in my sleep. It’s just gonna take a little bit to get the scoring. I was a little rusty out there in terms of shooting the ball. I haven’t really been able to do a whole lot so it’s going to take a while to break back in and get my rhythm.”
The Raptors, by the way, are nearly out of obscure playoff firsts, but this situation presented one more: A chance to win a road playoff game they trailed at half for the first time ever. Arbitrary? Sure. Nobody is arguing with turning an 0-23 into a 1-23, though. That didn’t come easy – the third was a bit of a slog for both sides, and every time the Raptors got close, they squandered the chance or had Washington pull back ahead. To wit, their first shot at their first lead of the game was an Ibaka pull-up three. When they did pull ahead, an opportunity to further that – a terrific Wright steal immediately upon checking in – resulted in a tough missed layup and a Beal transition three the other way. Toronto tried to go small briefly, Miles missed a couple of shots before hitting a runner, and a late stop was negated when nobody picked up Tomas Satoransky for a tip-in at the buzzer, allowing the Wizards to take a five-point lead into what would surely be a tense fourth quarter.
From there, Casey turned things over to one of the best five-man units in the NBA this season, one that had barely played in this series due to VanVleet’s AC sprain. Still less than 100 percent, VanVleet once again keyed a run. In an instant, it was like each bench piece fit perfectly once again. It took all of one possession for Scott Brooks to bring Wall back in, and the Wizards would keep at least two, usually more, starters on from there. Outside of a late-clock Poeltl 3-point attempt, this was the recognizable version of the bench that earnestly suggested an all-bench unit can survive in the playoffs. VanVleet tied things up with a three. Their trademark defense locked in, Siakam in particular doing a great job helping slow Wall down. Siakam even hit from mid-range, and when Miles followed with a trailer three in transition, an 11-2 run was unfolding. Casey continued to trust them, and they played to a 15-7 victory over nearly six minutes against stiff competition, handing control of the game back to Lowry as he and Valanciunas returned.
“He was the difference,” Casey said of VanVleet. “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.”
The rest proved important, and Lowry put the finishing touches on an outstanding performance, driving into Gortat for a tough finish, hitting a tough floater, and then hitting the deck for a steal that resulted in a Siakam transition bucket and a foul. VanVleet’s night ended with a few minutes to go (more due to minutes management than performance) with DeRozan re-entering, and Wall and Beal never made the counter-punch they’ve been putting up for most of the series.
“It goes back to the second unit,” Casey said. “It allows our guys to rest. DeMar. And also Poeltl, Poeltl gives JV a chance to rest. I thought Pascal was super. His energy level and his rebounding, his running the floor, his defense on Wall, his length. But also it just allows us and it gets them deep in their roster as far as Beal had, what, 43 minutes and John had 40. And Morris had 38. They were logging some heavy minutes and I thought that that was the difference in the game. And that was a credit to the second unit.”
Wright picked off another pass to spark Lowry on the break and, in a fitting bit of poetry, he blocked Kelly Oubre as time expired to put some punctuation on a series that was physical but never really hit contentious outside of Oubre’s bizarre issue with Wright. It mattered not, nor did Morris’ post-game comment that the better team didn’t win. Brooks disagreed, anyway, and the team that did more talking never found it in them to make a last-ditch fight at home to save their season.
After the game, the Raptors didn’t have the benefit – or the need – to look backward. They won, and they’re the better team for it. As Casey hammered home the enjoyment of this should be fleeting. “Keep the main thing the main thing” means a quick turn in focus to the next round, where another narrative could be waiting in the form of LeBron James. The Raptors say it doesn’t matter, anyway, because they’re ready for what’s next in any case.
“No,” DeRozan said.
“You hear that? He answered the question,” Lowry added.
A six-game victory as the one-seed over an eight-seed might not prove a great deal to the outside world. For the Raptors, proving they could win a series as the new, better version of themselves – with a nod to every element of the culture reset in the process – should be rewarding. Sometimes, real life just fits the narrative a team’s been trying to tell.