Published On: Mon, Apr 23rd, 2018

Raptors' playoff demons resurface in dispiriting Game 4 loss to Wizards

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The postseason was always going to be the proving ground for these reinvented Toronto Raptors.

Their regular season was a joy-filled romp, a bold experiment in basketball self-actualization that not only bred unprecedented success for the franchise but expanded the very conception of how a staid NBA roster could evolve.

All year, the shorthand for that evolution has been “culture reset” – the fateful ideological phrase that Raptors president Masai Ujiri famously uttered after his team was swept out of last year’s playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The consensus at the time was that Ujiri was hinting at sweeping personnel changes, but what the Raptors ultimately became, with their unchanged coach and largely unchanged roster, made that notion seem downright quaint.

But here we are, four games into the proving ground that is the postseason, and while they’ve taken a different route to this point and exorcised some demons along the way, the Raptors are right back where they’ve been in three of the past four years: tied at two games apiece with a statistically inferior, lower-seeded team in the first round. (The other year, you might recall, was the one in which they got swept in the first round by the Washington Wizards, the very team they’re now deadlocked with.)

This doesn’t mean they’ve failed their big playoff test; there’s a long way to go before a determination can be made on that front. But their Game 4 loss to the Wizards on Sunday, as much as it was more competitive than their Game 3 dud, was as close as they’ve come to reverting to the habits they spent the whole offseason and then 90 combined preseason, regular-season, and playoff games definitively excising.

The Game 3 loss was ugly, but it was also the result of some torrid shooting and balls-to-the-wall transition play from a desperate Wizards team getting an emotional bump from a return to its home floor. The Raptors’ execution was lousy, particularly their uncharacteristic sloppiness with the ball, but their process looked more or less like it had all season. In Game 4, Washington was not shooting the lights out. They were not feasting in transition, despite Toronto remaining curiously turnover-happy. The Raptors were a bit ragged, but they were executing their defensive scheme to near perfection, pushing the pace off defensive rebounds, and hitting enough threes to remain comfortably in front for the entirety of the first half. They had the Wizards on the ropes, up 11 points and 24 minutes from going home 3-1 with a chance to close out a series in five games for the first time in franchise history.

And then, because they seem to be categorically incapable of making things easy, the Raptors lost themselves. Their defensive rotations fell apart, they got beat up inside, and they surrendered 40 points in the third quarter. They got bogged down in the halfcourt and scrapped the whirring off-ball movement that has become a staple of their offensive sets. Those sets instead devolved into stagnant isolations, as the team’s role players waited for DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry to bail them out, while DeRozan and Lowry waited for the officials to do the same. Pick-and-rolls fell by the wayside; weakside exchanges were perfunctory; and perhaps most damningly, the Raptors repeatedly allowed themselves to get run off the 3-point line, passing up clean looks only to turn the ball over or generate lower-percentage shots inside the arc. They attempted just 18 3-pointers in the game, three fewer than they’d attempted in any previous game this season.

“I thought we turned down some shots we normally take,” head coach Dwane Casey told reporters after the game, singling out the most egregious offender in Delon Wright.

“You probably don’t get a better look than he turned down … I’d rather have a good look at a three than a turnover. I don’t know why we’re hesitating.”

Part of the Raptors’ offensive backslide was owed to the Wizards’ defensive adjustments, which saw them scale back their pick-and-roll blitzing in favor of a more conservative approach that closed off some routes to corner threes and challenged DeRozan and Lowry to beat them one-on-one. But Toronto has found workarounds for conservative schemes all season, with ball reversals and drive-and-kicks, timely cuts and clever interior passing. None of that was anywhere to be found on Sunday. The issue was the one Casey pointed to: hesitancy.

Even with their reversion to iso-ball, game-long turnover issues, and long-range reluctance, the Raptors held an eight-point lead with under eight minutes to play. The game was tied, with five minutes remaining, when Wizards guard Bradley Beal – who’d been the best player on the floor for either team – picked up a cheap sixth foul that forced him out of the game. But Toronto couldn’t take advantage, instead getting outscored 24-8 to close the game. You can pore over the nitty-gritty of what went wrong until you’re bluer in the face than G-Wiz himself, but the simple fact is the Raptors played without any semblance of confidence or flow down the stretch. In short: they choked.

The fact DeRozan used 46.4 percent of the Raptors’ possessions was an indictment of both him and his teammates. There were plenty of times he tried to force the issue and do too much, but there were just as many times when he tried to make a play for someone else who failed to validate his trust. Wright passed up threes and didn’t look to create off the dribble; Serge Ibaka fumbled innumerable passes and missed a couple golden opportunities to find open corner shooters. C.J. Miles committed three turnovers, which is ridiculous given how infrequently he touched the ball. Jakob Poeltl was exceedingly passive when he caught the ball on the roll, triggering more resets than rim runs. Lowry, for as good an all-around game as he played and as many busted possessions as he managed to bail out, could not create separation or generate clean looks for himself in crunch time. And DeRozan clanked mid-ranger after mid-ranger, tossing in some missed chippies and floaters for good measure.

All those janky offensive possessions just made things easier at the other end for the Wizards, whose halfcourt offense was no less muddy but made hay by running off the Raptors’ many misses.

“I took some bad shots that led to them getting out in transition, getting some easy buckets,” DeRozan, who shot 10-of-29, told reporters. “I think we got stagnant. Like I said, I took some bad shots that I wish I could have back.”

That quote, and this game, could easily have come from any of the Raptors’ last four postseason runs. This was DeRozan emptying the clip, feeling like that’s what he needed to do in order to get his team a win. This was supposed to be the year that notion got put to rest.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be before all’s said and done. Again, these last two games do not amount to playoff failure in totality. As nice as it would’ve been to see the Raptors finally act the part of front-runner and close out a first-round series in routine fashion just one time, the Wizards will still need to steal a game at the Air Canada Centre – where Toronto is 36-7 this year – to topple them. Narratives turn on a dime in the playoffs, and the Raptors – who have already seen theirs flip twice in the past week – can rewrite this story again over the next two games, and beyond.

But Game 4 was, in many ways, the manifestation of the greatest fears and loudest doubts we’d heard about this reimagined ball club all season: that when things got tough, and tense, and physical, the role players would shrink, and the stars would lose trust, and the team would fall back on its worst, most deeply embedded habits. In a season defined by firsts and high-water marks for the Raptors – 59 wins, a No. 1 seed, heck, even a Game 1 win! – it was galling to watch them look so familiar for all the wrong reasons.

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