WASHINGTON — The Toronto Raptors could not get through a playoff series without a little adversity. At least, for them, the feeling is familiar.
The striking thing about this first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards after two games was how much it felt like a role reversal. It was the Wizards’ stars who were being doubted after poor performances, and it was Washington’s coach who was praising the talent of his opponents. Toronto coach Dwane Casey, who would normally be searching for answers and defending his players by this point, instead didn’t have much to say.
He will have much to discuss now.
On a night when the Raptors were uncharacteristically sloppy, the Wizards took full advantage and rode strong performances from their own pair of star guards to win 122-103. The victory prevents Toronto from taking a 3-0 series lead for the first time in franchise history.
The Raptors will have an opportunity to assert control in the series again on Sunday. But while they have had a pair of off days after each of their wins, they now have a quick turnaround and a number of problems to correct. If it is true, as they have occasionally said, that they like being doubted, this was a game that will rekindle some of those feelings.
There was plenty of ugly for the Raptors. Repeated mistakes — Toronto had 19 turnovers — led to Washington baskets in transition, and opened the door for John Wall and Bradley Beal to fill up the stat sheet. Each of them had 28 points. It was exactly the kind of performance a reeling Wizards team needed from their best players, but the Raptors might have survived it if they hadn’t troubled their opponents so little.
Turnovers had not been a particular problem for the Raptors in the first two games at home and they weren’t at the start of Game 3, either. Toronto, thanks to more strong play from their starting unit, built up a nine-point lead in the first 10 minutes on Friday night, leading to much muttering from the Washington crowd.
But the usually reliable Toronto bench, without its usual general Fred VanVleet — out with a shoulder injury — almost immediately got the Raptors into trouble. A series of turnovers led to easy Wizards baskets and they closed the first quarter on a 12-2 run to take a one-point lead.
Toronto’s carelessness with the ball continued in the following quarter and the Wizards hit several big shots to blow the game open. A Mike Scott corner three, then a Beal three-pointer from deep, gave Washington a 56-45 lead and had the formerly disgruntled crowd on its feet. The Wizards would stretch the lead to 13 before the Toronto starters came in to trim it to five. But more turnovers — the Raptors had 13 in the half, leading to 22 Washington points — allowed the home side to get out of the first half with a 69-61 lead.
It was an exoneration of sorts for the lineup choice of Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who had hinted at shuffling his starters after going down into an 0-2 hole but ultimately stuck with the same unit at the opening tip. Brooks said before the game that he didn’t want to overreact to the losses.
“(I’m) confident in the group, we’ve had a lot of good moments together,” he said. “When you’re going into a series, you’ve got to give Toronto credit, they took care of the first home games, on their court, and we’ve gotta give our group a chance to do the same, and we have a history of we’ve done it and hopefully, we can repeat it tonight.”
When they weren’t allowing the Wizards to score easily in transition, the Raptors continued to show why their offence has been tough for Washington to stop. DeRozan had 14 first-half points, although on 13 shots. Lowry had 11 on just eight attempts.
The Wizards coach had said pre-game that DeRozan was, simply, a very tough player to stop.
“He’s really good. He’s really, really good. He has a very high IQ. He can make shots,” Brooks said.
But in Game 3, DeRozan did not make enough of them, scoring 23 points but on 22 shots, and he drew only one shooting foul.
Casey said the bigger problem was on defence.
“They came out and punched us, and we allowed them to,” the coach said afterward.
“Nineteen turnovers, and they shoot 55 per cent, and that’s the ball game.” It was succinct, and correct, analysis.
DeRozan also provided a blunt, brief assessment: “We didn’t take care of the ball. They fed off that.”
While DeRozan and Lowry led the Raptors in scoring again on Friday night, Game 3 was a vivid reminder that the Wizards, who swept the Raptors in the first round three seasons ago, have some elite scorers of their own.
The Raptors have enough playoff experience to know that series can swing violently from game to game. They have bounced back from some stinkers before, against Indiana and Miami two years ago, and Milwaukee last year.
It was probably always bound to be a series. It certainly is one now.