The Toronto Raptors spent the bulk of the 2017-18 regular season building a case that they were legitimate championship contenders, rolling up the East’s best record and winning a franchise-record 59 games. But after years of Game 1 losses, postseason struggles and winding up bowing before the King — and after a brief late-season swoon that included some familiar-looking losses against top competition — many NBA observers found themselves unsure if these Raptors really were different, or just like the teams of the past with a new coat of paint.
Toronto would go a long way toward earning our trust, we said, if they just did what a legit No. 1 seed’s supposed to do once the postseason kicks off: square up against the No. 8 seed they’re hosting and just commence delivering a beatdown. They didn’t produce quite the sort of dominant performance we’d hoped to see on Saturday, but they got the job done late to exorcise those nasty Game 1 demons. In Tuesday’s Game 2, though? The Raptors didn’t mess around, doing what good teams do and incinerating a Wizards team that looks pretty close to being ready to close up shop for the summer.
The Raptors opened up on fire, barely needing three minutes to build a double-digit lead and never looking back on their way to a 130-111 whitewashing that gave top-seeded Toronto a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series. A Kyle Lowry 3-pointer just one minute and 21 seconds into the contest gave the Raps a lead they’d never relinquish, and one they’d increase to 23 points before halftime of a game in which they set franchise playoff records for most points in a quarter (the 44-27 first quarter that set the terms of engagement), in a half (76 by intermission) and in a game on their way to another very welcome bit of franchise history:
‘Topes win! 130-119. For the first time ever, they lead a playoff series 2-0. The waters, they are unchartered.
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) April 18, 2018
With all due respect to the ongoing yeoman’s work of Lowry (13 points, a career-playoff-high 12 assists, seven rebounds) and center Jonas Valanciunas (19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, two blocks), Game 2 belonged to DeMar DeRozan, who led six Raptors in double figures with a career-playoff-high-tying 37 points in 37 minutes of work:
After missing 11 of 17 shots in Game 1, but still making a positive impact by staying true to his season-long evolution into a facilitator of the Raptors’ more free-flowing offense, DeRozan again opened Game 2 by looking to set up his teammates, notching a pair of assists before his first bucket. (He’d finish with five rebounds, four assists and just two turnovers.) DeRozan got into his bag late in the first quarter, though, scoring eight straight points and 13 in the final five minutes of the quarter as the Raptors’ lead began to balloon. He’d stay there for just about the entirety of the evening, shooting 14-for-23 from the field, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range, to pace a Raptors offense that seemed to have every answer it needed against a Washington defense uninterested in asking too many tough questions.
Well, mostly uninterested, anyway. After a dismal and disorganized first half in which they paired miscommunication with apathy to allow the Raptors to score 76 points and make 11 3-pointers, the Wizards briefly made a go of it after halftime.
John Wall, undeterred by a very famous heckler, found his attacking rhythm, scoring 14 of his team-high 29 points in the third quarter while Toronto went cold from deep (0-for-7 from 3-point range) to get Washington with 10 points entering the fourth quarter. Wall kept the pedal down in the fourth, igniting a 10-2 run that cut the deficit to five with just under eight minutes to go in regulation:
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 18, 2018
This situation — a big lead chopped down to two possessions, an All-NBA-caliber player asserting his control over the game, a lot of time left on the clock and a lot of room for more bad things to happen — this is when Raptors teams of recent vintage might have buckled. This year’s model, though, shook off the Wizards’ shots to the chin, kept advancing, and turned up the heat to finish the game with a flourish:
Drake talks trash to Kelly Oubre and calls him "a bum" after deep CJ Miles 3-pointer pic.twitter.com/DKRhJIaJM3
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 18, 2018
The Raptors’ bench stabilized things, thanks to a late-shot-clock prayer of a heave from C.J. Miles and a beautiful block of a Wall layup by Delon Wright. DeRozan took it from there, scoring six points in the next 70 seconds to get the lead back to 12. Every time Wall would try to take over, DeRozan would grab the game right back, bringing the Raptors close enough to deliver a dagger … which they did, in extremely cool fashion, on a full-court break triggered by — you’re reading this right — DeRozan’s defensive hustle:
DeRozan’s save to Lowry, who redirected it to Wright for an emphatic dunk, effectively ended matters with 3:38 to go, putting the Raptors in the decidedly cool new position of holding a two-game edge two games into a series. It also sent the Wizards in search of answers just to be able to extend their season once the action shifts to D.C. on Friday.
Wall’s second-half surge excepted, the starting lineup that has been the Wizards’ foundation and bellwether in recent years looks overtaxed and overmatched. Marcin Gortat (scoreless in 12 minutes in Game 2) seemed like a shell of his former self through two games. Markieff Morris hasn’t brought the muscle or shot-making to bully any of the Raptors’ bigs. Bradley Beal — an All-Star just two months ago — scored just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting on Tuesday, looking completely out of gas and flat-out disconnected:
how to not do a post entry pass by bradley beal pic.twitter.com/phAU47UBO0
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) April 18, 2018
Bradley Beal's face says it all … pic.twitter.com/OyUB6ETefZ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 18, 2018
Bradley Beal will finish tonight with a -34 plus-minus, the worst by any Wizards player in the last 20 postseasons.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2018
After mostly going through the motions and watching his team get trucked, Wizards coach Scott Brooks found some success in the second half by downsizing, running small units featuring either Morris or Mike Scott (20 points on 7-for-10 shooting off the bench) at center flanked by some combination of Wall, eve-of-the-playoffs signing Ty Lawson (14 points and eight assists), wings Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. Those units — and similar ones featuring an awake Beal and/or curiously minimized backup guard Tomas Satoransky — can maximize floor spacing and offensive skill while also being better equipped to switch defensive assignments on the perimeter.
Staring down the barrel of an 0-3 deficit, it would seem to behoove Brooks to go small early and often on Friday in hopes of unleashing his most explosive and most-likely-to-match-up lineups, and he seems to be open to considering it. The question, though, is whether such rotational juggling is just too little and too late for this largely spiritless edition of the Wizards to survive much longer.
The Raptors’ starters have been better. The Raptors’ bench, even with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Fred VanVleet missing Game 1 due to injury and playing just three minutes in Game 2, has been better. The Raptors are better, maybe better than all but a couple of teams in the league, and on Tuesday, at long last, they played like it from the opening tip. The more they do it, the more they’ll keep building that case that this year really might wind up being different, after all.
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