WASHINGTON — You may commence pressing the panic button, Raptors fans. Mash it with your fists if you’d like.
After all the hard work and impressive play that allowed them to take a 2-0 series lead for the first time in their history, and despite holding an 11-point lead at halftime in Washington and an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Raptors saw all the good vibes disappear as the Wizards came back for a 106-98 victory that knots the series and will lead to some serious soul searching back in Toronto.
Despite promising to take better care of the ball after a dispiriting Game 3 loss on Friday night, the Raptors were sloppy again on Sunday, allowing the Wizards to hang around in a game that Toronto was dominating. By the time Washington seized the lead late in the fourth quarter, on a transition layup that came, naturally, off a turnover, Capital One Arena was going some degree of crazy.
“This (loss) was tougher,” coach Dwane Casey said afterward. “Because I thought we had it under control.”
The Raptors can tell themselves some reassuring things now, such as the fact that they still hold home court advantage, and that they have taken an injury knock, and that the Wizards are an unusually talented eighth seed, but the NBA has been waiting to see if the Raptors could follow a dominant regular season with a first-ever dominant playoffs. On that question: does a dominant start count?
Plainly, all the good things that have happened to the Raptors this season, starting with the vaunted culture reset that turned them into a modern, and elite, NBA team, are suddenly in peril. Toronto now needs desperately to win Game 5 on Wednesday night, in front of what will be an understandably nervous Air Canada Centre crowd, to avoid the possibility of a closeout game back in Washington next week. Given the way things have gone in this trip to the U.S. capital, they should want no part of that.
Washington shot dreadfully in the first half, but the Raptors committed 11 turnovers. They were up by 11 at the break, but it could have been so much more. Bradley Beal, mostly a non-factor for the Wizards in the first two games, scored 31 points on Sunday night but fouled out with five minutes to go. Washington hated the calls, but both teams were generally displeased with the officiating.
In the end, Toronto simply could not score when it mattered. DeMar DeRozan had 35 points, 14 of those from free throws on a night when he drove to the hoop with abandon. Kyle Lowry had 19 points, but the various part-timers who had been so effective in the early games of the series were not able to match the output of Toronto’s stars. “I don’t know why we’re hesitating,” Casey said, adding that too many Raptors were passing up looks that they usually take.
The message since a dispiriting Game 3 loss on Friday, both at Saturday practice and before tipoff on Sunday, was that the team needed no magic formula to stop the Wizards. They just had to meet the challenge of playing on the road against a talented, if flawed, team.
“It’s truly both mental and physical,” Casey had said on Sunday afternoon. “(The Wizards) are a very athletic, fast, strong, physical team that gets up and down the floor and in one-on-one situations they present a lot of problems.”
Beal and John Wall still combined for 23 points at the half, but Washington shot poorly as a team, 34 per cent for the opening two quarters, in part because they kept taking long-range two-pointers. It was a half in which Toronto could have run Washington out of the building, but the Wizards took advantage of enough mistakes to stay in range, which they exploited with a huge third quarter that tied the game.
The Raptors’ lack of closing ability underscored how much they miss Fred VanVleet, who remained out with a shoulder injury suffered in the regular-season finale on April 11. The loss of a backup point guard would not normally seem like such a significant hurdle to overcome, but VanVleet is not a normal backup. He’s the leader of the Raptors’ second unit, which was the most effective bench in the NBA this season and a key reason behind Toronto’s record 59 wins.
VanVleet said before the game that he tried to come into Game 2 because he was pain-free, but he realized right away that he couldn’t do everything he needed to do on the court.
“Me at 50 per cent, that won’t help anybody,” he said. “But I tried. It didn’t go as planned. Now I’ve got to take the opportunity to get back right.”
It’s a big loss. When VanVleet wasn’t the general of Toronto’s all-bench unit, he played alongside Lowry in crunch time. Among those who played at least 60 games, VanVleet was second in the NBA in net rating per 100 possessions, behind only Eric Gordon on the West-leading Houston Rockets.
Not having him for the final four minutes, when a tie game turned into an eight-point loss, clearly hurt Toronto on both ends of the floor. His status, and whether the Raptors can survive without him, is very much a question. There are lot of those for this team right now.
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