TORONTO — Now comes the hard part. Or rather, the even harder part.
Desperate to avoid an elimination game in Washington, the Toronto Raptors defended their home court again with a wild, back-and-forth 108-98 win on Wednesday night, and can now clinch the series with a victory in the District of Columbia on Friday night.
After a first half in which the Raptors took care of the ball much better than they had in Washington, but were killed on the offensive glass as the Wizards kept it close, Toronto finally pulled away late — very late — thanks to some late scoring from Delon Wright. A deep three-pointer with under four minutes left sent the Air Canada Centre into bedlam. It was much-needed secondary scoring for the Raptors on a night when DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for 49 points.
“He made one from Barrie,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Is that what it is, up north? I thought that was a big shot for him.”
DeRozan had 30 of his 32 through three quarters, but Wright scored seven straight in the closing stretch to allow Toronto to pull away.
With the victory, the Raptors have another chance to solve the puzzle of Capital One Arena, which has been raucous in each of the two games there.
There is no understating the degree to which the Raptors wanted to win this. With a loss, they would have been forced to win two straight, the first of which is in Washington, where the Wizards are on an eight-game playoff win streak. And, absent that kind of a reversal, this team would once again be confronting the same existential questions that it has been forced to consider in each of the past few off-seasons.
While the front office led by team president Masai Ujiri has avoided blowing the Raptors up after playoff ousters engineered by, in order, the Brooklyn Nets, these Wizards, and the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), his last off-season was as much of a reshaping as could be done without touching his major pieces. Bringing back Casey as head coach, while keeping the Lowry-DeRozan backcourt and making a pile of changes to the rest of the roster, and then having that group install new offensive and defensive systems, felt like a last shot at trying to achieve a sustained playoff run with this group.
Ujiri said last summer that he was tired of the playoff disappointments and that they were finished with that iteration of the Raptors. It was somewhat of a surprise when the latest version of the team featured most of the same key pieces, but over 82 games his patience was rewarded. These Raptors were deep and talented and they played a style of basketball that was conducive to winning in the modern NBA, stressing ball movement and three-pointers. They were now just dinosaurs in the literal nickname sense.
This series, though, has confused that narrative. It started well, with the Raptors bucking their Game 1 hex and winning twice by sharing the ball and raining down three-pointers. In the week since, they have reverted to old form, with DeRozan taking the bulk of the shots and taking the balanced offence with him. A series that looked to be well in hand has instead turned into a struggle. Even in the Game 5 win, which the Wizards led by five in the fourth, Washington took Toronto out of its normal spread-it-around style, cutting off passing lanes and leaving DeRozan and Lowry to take a pile of shots. They hit enough of them to make the Wizards think twice about that strategy in Game 6.
There are undoubtedly some complicating factors for the Raptors in this dogfight of a series, from the loss of Fred VanVleet, who it would seem is the glue that held Toronto’s impressive second unit together, to the fact that the Wizards had more talent than a typical eighth seed and a superstar in John Wall, but in the end all of the work that began late last spring was specifically designed to avoid this kind of a position.
A win on Friday in Washington would go some distance toward making the case that those two losses were more of a speed wobble than a course correction, and that the Raptors are still on track for a deep playoff run.
But first they have to survive the D.C. crowd. Casey noted this week that home-court clearly makes a difference in this league.
“That’s one reason why you play as hard as you do for 82 games, to get home-court advantage. You take care of home and both teams have taken care of home.”
He said that the Washington crowd, particularly when the Wizards erased a late lead, was a definite challenge.
“There were some things coming out there – they were rabid. It was a hot environment on Sunday, so we have to turn around and do the same thing. I hope our crowd is loud on Washington and making it so they can’t call out plays and whatever. It’s very important.”
The Air Canada Centre crowd did its part and the Raptors did theirs. They would rather not need the home crowd to do its thing in a Game 7.