TORONTO — There were a lot of same-old-Raptors stories being considered at halftime, if we’re being honest.
It was not a pleasing development. For a team that had decided to revel in the doubts of their detractors, that showed clips of various U.S. analysts criticizing them on the scoreboard before the game began, that said over and over that they were confident this new-look group wouldn’t fall into familiar Game 1 traps, there were the Toronto Raptors after two quarters staring at a four-point hole.
Despite jumping out to a quick 10-point lead over Washington, the Wizards pulled back and then pulled ahead, leading 59-55 at the break. The grim trends were all there to be seen. Washington’s John Wall had 13 points and 10 assists, and his backcourt partner Bradley Beal had nine points on his own. Toronto’s two all-stars, meanwhile, had a combined seven points. Kyle Lowry had hit just one of his three field-goal attempts. DeMar DeRozan had made only one of his five shots. The anchors of the Toronto lineup, who had said they were treating Game 1 like a Game 7, were instead playing like the Game 1s of recent Raptors history: poorly.
And then, finally, everything changed. DeRozan began the third quarter with a layup and a drilled three-pointer. On the next Toronto possession, he found an open Serge Ibaka, who hit a three-pointer. After a Washington miss, Lowry gathered the rebound and raced up the court, then he pulled up and banged home a three pointer of his own. The five-point deficit was now a five-point lead, and the Air Canada Centre exploded. Lowry slapped a low-five with a teammate and scowled. If it is possible to make a very angry three-pointer, Lowry had just done it.
It was just two minutes and 11 seconds of game time, but it felt like the Raptors had just turned the perception of their team on its ear. They didn’t exactly cruise from there on the way to the 114-106 victory, but when Toronto needed desperately to keep those Game 1 demons from overtaking them, they had found a way to do just that.
Coach Dwane Casey would say afterward, with a smile on his face, that he was feeling just fine at halftime. “Felt great. Felt lovey dovey,” is actually what he said, which is when you knew he wasn’t being entirely truthful.
“You feel the angst a little bit,” he said. He had said before the game that there was no obvious explanation for why this team had bombed through so many Game 1 losses. Casey called it a “psychological phenomenon” and said he was no psychologist. And yet at the half, he said, he was “nervous, but not out of whack.” The coach said his team had fought back from deficits before, and they remained confident that their new way of doing things would win out in the end.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. DeRozan and Lowry were certainly aggressive as the second half opened, but they also kept getting everyone else involved. Ibaka had 23 points, and there were huge baskets made by C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby, who hit nine three-pointers between them, part of the 16 three-balls that the Raptors bombed in, a playoff record for the team.
Casey said that his team has struggled in the past when Lowry and DeRozan were swamped by opposing defences, and they weren’t able to figure out a way past such problems. But now, they didn’t have to force it. They worked the ball to Anunoby, the rookie, who coolly hit big shots like he had done this before. They kept feeding it to Miles, who missed his first two attempts from distance, then was 4-for-5 the rest of the way. Miles, who was brought here as a free agent almost entirely so he could shoot three pointers in big games, shot like a guy who didn’t care at all about the Raptors’ 17-year, 10-game, series-opener losing streak. Possibly because he didn’t even know the streak existed until someone asked him about it on Friday. DeRozan and Lowry would finish the game with 15 assists between them. Then Lowry teased Ibaka about his slick suit when he came to the interview podium, calling him “the best dressed man in the NBA.” He welcomed him to the stage: “Serge IbAKA!,” he said, with a grin.
It was a dramatic change from past playoffs, when the offence lived or died with whether Lowry and DeRozan made their shots, and when the post-Game 1 media sessions had the air of a funeral.
When it was over, it was Wizards coach Scott Brooks who was answering questions about how to slow down the potent Toronto offence. If they were going to key on DeRozan and Lowry, how could the Wizards stop the rest of the Raptors’ shooters? “It’s definitely a pick your poison, but we just have to do it better,” Brooks said.
This is what the Raptors have said in recent seasons about trying to slow down the Cleveland Cavaliers, even as they were getting thumped by them. A Game 1 that ended with an opponent talking about the tough challenge of stopping the Raptors?
Some narratives really do change.