The old Washington Wizards showed up Friday night — the team that last year oozed swagger and compared itself to a hardcore rap label.
In this Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, that Wizards team had been missing and replaced with an inferior copycat that shriveled against the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. Ahead of Game 3, Washington Coach Scott Brooks believed the soul of that team still existed inside this current roster. So he didn’t bench a starter or reconstruct the rotation. He instead wagered the outcome of the series on the belief that his old team was coming back.
Through a night of fist pumping and primal screams, Washington registered a pulse inside Capital One Arena and defeated the Raptors, 122-103. The old Wizards are indeed alive and well — and now trailing two games to one in this best-of-seven matchup.
“The biggest thing [was] we were down 2-0. If that’s not a wake-up call in itself, then we don’t deserve to be here,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “But everybody was locked in from shoot-around and the last couple of days, actually. Even after we lost Game 2, everybody was pretty much locked in.”
Beal bounced back from a nightmarish Game 2 with 28 points on 10-for-19 shooting. On Friday, Beal sank more three-pointers (four) than the total field goals he made in his last game (three) but was raptured into fits of celebration. In the second quarter as the Wizards forced Raptors Coach Dwane Casey into calling a timeout, Beal walked off the court imploring fans to scream. Thousands obliged.
The cheers provided the backing track to John Wall’s on-court opus — 28 points and 14 assists while also playing the intense defense necessary from the team’s best player. Wall finished with a block and four steals and chased what would have been another swipe from DeMar DeRozan’s hands to the sideline. Though Wall couldn’t quite secure the ball in time, he stood past the expensive seats and punched the air to once again stir up the crowd.
“That was a fun and a really great environment,” Brooks said. “We needed every ounce of the energy that they gave us, and our guys responded.”
Then, as he finished sharing praise, Brooks needled reporters.
“All our guys played well,” he said. “It’s a good thing that I didn’t listen to you guys and not start our starting center.”
Marcin Gortat, who ditched his season-long mohawk to the great delight of teammates, scored 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting to go with five rebounds. Gortat finished scoreless in Tuesday’s Game 2, frustrating his coach to the point that Brooks strongly hinted at replacing him in the starting five. However, Gortat once again walked onto the court with the starting five and played 25 solid minutes as the dime collector, turning six passes from Wall into buckets.
“Tonight, he got it going and made some easy shots,” Wall said of Gortat. “I always try to find him and always try to tell him to be ready to look for one of my passes because a lot of teams collapse on me and if I can’t find my shooters, he’s my last resort.”
“And he cut his mohawk,” Beal deadpanned, while sitting next to Wall at the postgame news conference.
“That was the key. He shocked us when he cut his mohawk when he came here.”
Even the old Wall and Beal comedy tag team is back.
Besides the awakened all-star backcourt and a clean-shaven center, other maligned starters reappeared. Markieff Morris’s seven-point, one-rebound night was anything but quiet as he provided muscle early in the game. When his offense faded, Otto Porter Jr. didn’t disappear, instead contributing eight rebounds and two blocks.
“I’m confident in the group,” Brooks said before the game. “They had a lot of moments together. Not to say if we don’t have a good start, I might make a quicker substitution.”
The starters responded, leading 30-29 after the opening frame. As the game continued, the unit discovered its missing chemistry on both ends, directing its fury at a Raptors team caught off guard.
Morris couldn’t wait three minutes before elbowing rookie OG Anunoby and starting a shoving match that produced double technical fouls.
When asked what set the tone for the game, Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. responded with one name.
“Keef coming out there and pretty much being fired up,” Oubre said. “I think OG really didn’t know the scouting report because he didn’t know that Keef was one of the people that you don’t mess with in this world. It is what it is. He’ll learn.”
Later, as the Wizards were rolling and adding to their first double-digit lead of the series, Beal didn’t appreciate the audacity of center Jonas Valanciunas — how dare he hold on to the ball after committing an offensive foul? The time could have been spent setting up one of the Wizards’ offensive plays that created 10 three-pointers. So Beal reached for the ball. Then he wrestled Valanciunas for it. The scuffle led to Wall and Raptors forward Serge Ibaka sharing unpleasant words before Ibaka made a move at the five-time all-star.
During the officials’ review, which ultimately led to more double technicals, “Boyz-N-The Hood” by Eazy-E blared over the speakers. Not quite ’90s hip-hop but a nod to the Wizards’ nickname of the 2016-17 season: Deathrow D.C.
The old Wizards had showed their identity again and earned a throwback tune. Brooks’s faith was rewarded. So where had this team been all this time?
“In heaven,” Oubre joked. “I don’t know. It’s just something that it is who we are and we’ve been there at spurts throughout the year. Just haven’t been there consistently. Now it’s do or die. Now we just have to bring that Deathrow mentality.”
Although playing the five-man bench unit seemed to be a risky choice against the Raptors’ waves of depth, the Wizards’ reserves showed their mettle.
Their minutes together created a medley of teamwork. Oubre raged. Ty Lawson pushed the pace. Ian Mahinmi controlled the paint on both ends. The bench scored 35 points, but its play in the second quarter — with Oubre playing the best defense of any Wizard in this series and Mahinmi finishing passes from his teammates — guided Washington to 39 points. A 13-point lead in the second quarter swelled to 22 after halftime, and suddenly the old Wizards didn’t seem so much like a distant memory.
— Candace Buckner
Game 3 recap and biggest moments:
*Washington wins Game 3 122-103 to cut into Toronto’s lead, 2-1: This was the Washington Wizards at their playoff best. With five scorers in double figures lead by John Wall (28 points, 14 assists) and Bradley Beal (28 points including four threes), Washington played the type of defense Scott Brooks likes to see and brought energy to their home court that had been absent for the first two games of the series on the road.
The Wizards now have seven straight home playoff wins — in the entire league, only the Golden State Warriors have more (11).
*Are the Wizards better without John Wall?
*Welcome home, Ty Lawson: The guard from Clinton, Md., hit a buzzer-beater to put the Wizards up 101-82 at the end of the third quarter. Washington hit 12-of-18 field goals in the third.
*Where’d these guys come from? This can’t surprise anyone who’s followed the Wizards the past few months and seen their ever-changing identity first hand, but tonight, Washington looks like a throwback team from last year’s playoffs. They’re the most aggressive they’ve been this series. Guys like Marcin Gortat (16 points) are getting involved, and John Wall is at his best.
*Fight Night: The series leaves Canada and gets chippy. This time, in the second scuffle of the night, Bradley Beal and Jonas Valanciunas got into it, then after things appeared to cool off for a split second, John Wall and Serge Ibaka started chirping at each other as Wizards assistant coaches came off the bench to separate the two. Meantime, the crowd at Capital One Arena chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” and the arena played “Born in the USA.” Subtle!
*About Otto Porter Jr.: Porter hasn’t been himself at all this series as he’s been reportedly dealing with a lingering hip injury. The small forward averaged a career-high 14.7 points per game and shot 44.1 percent from three, but has all but disappeared so far against Toronto. He’s played 15 minutes tonight and has attempted just four field goals for two points.
*Halftime: Washington leads Toronto 69-61: Toronto didn’t let the Wizards cruise into halftime without a fight, but Washington stayed ahead thanks to 21 points from Bradley Beal and 19 from John Wall. Off the bench, Mike Scott (+12), Kelly Oubre Jr. (+10) and Ty Lawson (+12) provided a huge defensive spark in the second quarter.
*Late in the second quarter … we should talk about the crowd again: It only seems fair.
*Double-digit lead alert: What happens when the Wizards defense shows up and John Wall (11 points, six assists) and Bradley Beal (18 points) are working in sync? Washington’s first double-digit lead of the series.
*Helping hand: Turnovers are going the Wizards’ way this game, at least, which certainly helped Washington out to its biggest lead of the game in the second quarter. Toronto has nine so far at Capital One Arena.
*Real Deal Beal: After a lackluster, nine-point performance in Game 2, Bradley Beal woke up. The all-star leads the Wizards with 12 points midway through the second quarter.
*Late first quarter run just what Wizards needed: Things looked like they were about to go sideways in the first quarter again for the Wizards, who found themselves down 27-18.
But that was before a 12-2 run to end the first and turn the game to a 30-29.
Bradley Beal has 12 points on seven shots in the first quarter — after taking just 11 shots in all of Game 2 — to lead the Wizards in this one. Washington needs more of that to get back into this series.
*Ty Dolla Sign: Newest Wizard Ty Lawson follows up his impressive debut.
*Third time’s the charm? The Wizards are still struggling to defend Toronto the three-point line. The Raptors already have hit four of seven attempts from beyond the arc, while Washington is 0 for 3. Toronto had 13 threes in Game 2 and 16 in Game 1.
*Technically speaking: Markieff Morris and OG Anunoby were each handed a technical foul after a scuffle following Morris being bowled over on a screen. Morris now has two fouls — Brooks sent Mike Scott in the game in his place — after fouling Jonas Valanciunas, too.
*Beal getting involved for Wizards: There’s been a lot of talk about the Wizards wanting — and needing — to get Bradley Beal more shots after he took just 11 in Game 2.
So far, mission accomplished.
Beal already has three shot attempts in the opening minutes of the game for Washington, and looks engaged in the action. That’s a good sign for the Wizards, who are fighting for their playoff lives.
And while it’s early, Marcin Gortat already has four points and four rebounds, lending some credibility to Coach Scott Brooks’ decision not to go small to start Game 3.
Still, Toronto has a four-point lead early in D.C.
*Yeah, we’ve got to talk about the crowd: It’s not a weekday. Nobody’s coming directly from work. Yes, Wizards crowds are notoriously late-arriving, but yeesh.
*Lucky No. 7: The Wizards have been in this situation before. Down two games to zero to Boston last year, they managed to even the series at home and force a Game 7 thanks to John Wall’s unforgettable shot after which he famously jumped on the scorer’s table — also at home. Before then, they took a 2-0 lead at home over Atlanta in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. Washington has won its past six playoff games at Capital One Arena, which bodes well for tonight.
*For starters: Well well. After Scott Brooks posited that Mike Scott could be an option to start at center against Toronto in Game 3, the Wizards coach has decided to keep his first unit intact. It’s a move that makes a good amount of sense (the Wizards are desperate, but Brooks has to show faith and he can’t risk losing Marcin Gortat mentally) even if Scott had a standout Game 2. And you can’t blame Brooks for considering the move with his team down two games to none and getting absolutely dominated in the first quarter so far.
Game 3 overview
Toronto Raptors (No. 1 seed, 59-23, 1st in Atlantic Division) at Washington Wizards (No. 8 seed, 43-39, 2nd in Southeast Division)
Date and time: Friday, 8 p.m.
Channel: NBCSW and ESPN2
Location: Capital One Arena
Regular season series: Wizards 2, Raptors 2
Previous series results
Game 4: Sunday at Washington, 6 p.m., NBCSW and TNT
Game 5: Wednesday at Toronto, time TBD, NBCSW
Game 6 (if necessary): Friday at Washington, time TBD, NBCSW
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, April 29, at Toronto, time and television TBD
>> “If they don’t get to the conference finals, I do believe that a major change has to happen.” That’s former Wizards forward Paul Pierce’s assessment of the team, suggesting John Wall and Bradley Beal possibly “break up.”
>> The Raptors have outscored Washington 72-50 in first quarters. Needless to say, ahead of Game 3 Friday night at Capital One Arena, the Wizards are looking to reverse their bad starts.
>> The Wizards need to turn up the defense if they hope to get back into this series. Problem is, that’s a very big ask. According to Neil Greenberg, the biggest liabilities for Washington in the half court are Kelly Oubre Jr., Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal. All four rank in the bottom 20 percent of NBA players in the postseason for points allowed per possessions and each is hurting the Wizards in different ways.
>> The Wizards didn’t seem disappointed by their Game 2 loss, so Jerry Brewer wonders: maybe they’re too chill for their own good? “It would be understandable if they had reason to brush off the game as an aberration, if they were a team that didn’t have recurring problems with focus and transferring preparation onto the court. But that is part of their enigmatic identity. You needed the reassurance of feeling their emotions and sensing their urgency. You will have to trust them, however. Good luck.”
>> Any way you judge the Wizards — with or without John Wall, at their best or worst, home or road, bickering or harmonious, big game or run-of-the-mill affair — they do one thing with stunning consistency: Flub the fourth quarter. They close games like they are trying to slam the heaviest door ever made. If they don’t summon more late-game strength, their season of what ifs and not quites will end with a few last “We had ’em, but . . . ” regrets, writes Jerry Brewer.
>> John Wall thought he was “fat” when the season opened. During this two-month layoff to rehab from knee surgery, Wall and his personal remolded his diet and body. He’s dropped almost 15 pounds, enabling him to play lighter on his feet. Here’s how that diet looks. Speaking of Wall, Tom Boswell thinks the Wizards star needs to shoot a whole lot less.
>> The Raptors and Wizards are such comparable peers. They’ve both been building toward their current rosters since 2010. They both broke through to the playoffs in 2014. But after the Wizards swept the Raptors in the 2015 playoffs, Toronto made the conference final the next season while Washington still hasn’t advanced beyond the second round. So while the Wizards and Raptors once had similar trajectories, now Toronto has clearly surged ahead, writes Jerry Brewer.
>> No one player can be blamed for the Wizards’ defensive mistakes in Game 1. But Kelly Oubre Jr. often draws the ire of his coach because he flashes so much skill on the defensive end but negates the potential with youthful miscues. He played 10 fewer minutes than his season average in Saturday’s game as a result.
>> The top of the Wizards’ roster might be a little better than the Raptors’ best players. On Saturday night, however, the Raptors sent a strong initial message about who they are during a 114-106 victory in Game 1 at Air Canada Centre. In short, they’re better — clearly better — than Washington, writes Jerry Brewer. These aren’t two teams striding alongside each other on the same journey. The Raptors have pulled ahead, and if you’re expecting them to slow down so the Wizards can catch up, that’s not how this is going to go. If the Wizards hope to win this series — or even become a threat to win — they will have to accelerate.