WASHINGTON — DeMar DeRozan said before Game 6 that he didn’t want to have to deal with the “headache” of Game 7.
You may put away your aspirins, fellas.
After playing a flat and disjointed three quarters that had it looking like the Raptors were once again going to have to end a post-season series with a Game 7 on home court, coach Dwane Casey spun his magic wheel of lineups to find a combination that worked for Toronto in the fourth quarter, allowing them to pull ahead in a game they mostly trailed before they held on for a 102-92 victory.
The win allowed the Raptors to accomplish many things: it was the first time in five playoff attempts at Capital One Arena that Toronto managed to come out on the good side, it sent them into the second round having finally dispatched the eighth-seeded Wizards, and it restored the sense that the East’s No. 1 seed might have finally turned a playoff corner.
It was a game that showcased much of what we knew about both teams going into the series. John Wall and Bradley Beal were spectacular for the Wizards, scoring a combined 55 points, proving again that they are an atypical eighth seed and that their two guards match up very well with Toronto’s all-star backcourt. But the Raptors’ depth, the key to their East-leading season, was also on full display. It was their bench unit, finally at full strength with the return of Fred VanVleet from injury, that keyed a fourth-quarter run that allowed the Raptors to take their first sustained leads of the night. Casey left Kyle Lowry and DeRozan on the bench for a long stretch at the start of the fourth as the backups seized control of the game.
“It’s nothing different than we’ve done, we were just adding Freddie to the group,” Casey said after the win. “He’s the engine that drives that group.”
“That unit just moves the scoreboard,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said of the Toronto bench. He added that he thought Casey should be the coach of the year for the way he has remodelled the Raptors this season.
That bench lineup — VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, C.J. Miles — got big plays from everyone as the Raptors roared ahead, including a big three-pointer from Miles, a huge Siakam dunk and a pile of defensive stops. The Raptors outscored the Wizards by 18 with Siakam on the floor, and Wright and VanVleet were each +12 on the night. Depth was supposed to be major asset for the Raptors, it just took six games for them to demonstrate it.
“It was just a testament to what they did all year, carrying over to the playoffs,” said DeRozan, who didn’t come back into the game until there were fewer than four minutes left. “It’s nothing new to us.”
“On any given night, our bench can do that,” Lowry said.
“We gave them the trust, we trusted them even if they had an off night,” DeRozan said. “And now we’re here.”
In the days since their come-from-behind win in Game 5 in Toronto, the Raptors all said similar things about what they needed to do to in Game 6, what needed to happen if they were going to finally win one in Washington, where they were 0-4 in the post-season coming into Friday night.
“Play with the same confidence we do at home,” Lowry said on Friday morning. He said the Wizards had done a good job at home at forcing turnovers, by preying on weak passes, something the Raptors could control by making smarter plays. The Raptors only turned the ball over six times in Game 6, by far their best mark of the series. Lowry, who had said earlier that Toronto’s players needed to shoot when they had open looks, took his own advice to score 24 points on 15 attempts.
Casey has said repeatedly over this series that he’s not sure where the hesitancy has come from on the road, given that the Raptors were a good travelling team all season.
DeRozan sounded like someone who knew what needed to be done, especially since the Raptors had shaken off previous Game 6 failures by closing out Milwaukee on the road in that situation last year.
“Yeah, I think we just got tired of Game 7s,” he said. “And the headache that comes with that.
“I think we’re at a point now where we really understand the importance of it, and not wanting to go home. This is a great opportunity for us to get it out of the way and move on.”
But when the game started, it was the Wizards that jumped out to an early lead, opening a 12-point gap as they couldn’t miss and Toronto struggled to put the ball in the basket.
The Raptors, though, weathered that poor start and played their way back into the game thanks in large part to the return of VanVleet, who has been out with a shoulder injury suffered in the last game of the regular season. One wouldn’t have necessarily expected the East’s top seed to be boosted so notably by the return of their undrafted free agent backup point guard, but this series has been far from a casual stroll for Toronto. As the second half wore on, Washington’s shooting cooled off, allowing the Raptors to escape to the break trailing by just three, 53-50.
Toronto closed the gap in the third quarter and even took the lead by a point, but the Wizards closed with a burst that put them back up by five, 78-73, entering the final frame.
Then it was time for the bench to take over. In a season in which assorted role players were a huge part of Toronto’s success, it was a fitting way for this series to end.