TORONTO — Rather than mope, the Washington Wizards tried to throw away Game 5 as fast as they could. They know the routine too well: Keep the series knotted through four games, lose Game 5 on the road, and prepare in earnest for life without any more mulligans.
This is the fourth straight playoff appearance in which John Wall and Bradley Beal carried the team home for a Game 6 facing elimination. They have been eliminated twice at home and forced a Game 7 once. Their first experience came in 2014, when the Wizards fell behind the Indiana Pacers 3-1 but managed to win Game 5 on the road before being eliminated at home. In 2015 and 2017, the current dire scenario — lose Game 5 with the series tied, then walk the plank — played out in the second round. But this time, it’s the first round, and if the Wizards can’t rally from a 3-2 series deficit to Toronto, it will mark the shortest playoff appearance of the Wall-Beal era.
The Wizards know the stakes. They know the disappointing things they have done to put themselves in this position. But as they prepare to face the end again in Game 6 on Friday night, the pressure of finality feels eerily natural to this team. Some teams live on the edge. The Wizards have built a whole subdivision there. They have yet to escape this predicament and come back to win a series, but they’re unbowed anyway.
“I don’t think being down 3-2 going back home is anything psychologically draining,” forward Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “We just know we have to take care of the next game. Y’all have seen how we play with our backs against the wall. Back at home, we need that same energy.”
The previous two times the Wizards were in this situation — down 3-2 against a higher seed, returning home but knowing they still would need to win on the road to advance — it set the stage for classic games. A year ago, the Wizards triumphed in Game 6 against Boston on a John Wall three-pointer. Still, they went on to lose in seven. In 2015, Atlanta eliminated Washington in Game 6 after officials reviewed Paul Pierce’s incredible, potentially game-tying shot and determined he released it a millisecond after the clock expired.
The Wizards have won their past eight home playoff games, so it’s reasonable to expect that they can force a seventh game. But that game would be Sunday at Air Canada Centre, where the Wizards have allowed the Raptors to kill them with three-pointers and bench production. They’re simply a shaky postseason road team. The Wizards have lost 11 of their past 12 playoff games away from D.C., including three to Toronto in this series.
Still, Washington is acting unburdened.
“We love our chances,” Wall said. “We’re very confident.”
Of course, the Wizards should have confidence. It’s an essential element of competitiveness. And they have played well in pushing Toronto this far. The question is whether they have enough countermoves left. This tight series has both verified the belief that the Wizards should have been higher than a No. 8 seed and illuminated why they weren’t able to sustain a higher level of play throughout the season.
They’re a scary, top-heavy team capable of exploding at any time. The Raptors’ best blow isn’t as potent as what Washington can throw. But because the Raptors are a well-devised and deep team, they can outlast the Wizards. That’s how they won Game 5, which was the closest and best battle of the series until Toronto pulled away in the final five minutes.
For all the talent and bravado the Wizards possess, there’s just more to the Raptors. The Wizards have to play incredibly smart to beat them, which they have done twice so far. But winning two more games with no margin for error will be an immense challenge. The Wizards need Wall and Beal to play their best and influence nearly every aspect of the game to have a chance. The Raptors need DeMar DeRozan’s scoring and Kyle Lowry’s leadership, but for everything else, they can look to a variety of players.
It’s funny. You can’t count out the Wizards, because their star duo is the greatest force in this series. DeRozan and Lowry are good — heck, DeRozan is really good — but Wall and Beal are more dynamic. But because the Wizards rely so heavily on them, the Raptors’ depth and balance are even greater factors in this series than they would be against other opponents. Somehow, against an opponent that rarely plays anyone 40 minutes, Wizards Coach Scott Brooks must utilize his stars flawlessly to maximize their effectiveness and keep them from running out of gas in the fourth quarter.
Brooks failed in Game 5. Wall played 44 minutes, including the entire second half for the second straight game. Beal played 36 minutes, which is a reasonable workload, but as the game wore on, you started to see the fatigued version of him again. Remember, he’s still a young player who competed in all 82 games, logged a career-high 36.3 minutes per game and had to carry the Wizards for half of the season when Wall was injured.
The Wizards led 87-82 with 8:52 remaining. Then the Raptors took over for a 108-98 victory as Wall and Beal sputtered. Wall was 0 for 3 from the field and committed two of his seven turnovers as Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas simply stabbed at the ball and stole it from him. That hardly ever happens to Wall. Down the stretch, Beal shot 1 for 6 from the field. Entering the fourth quarter, both players were having strong and efficient games. But they didn’t have enough left to take over. On the other side, Toronto just played its game, made its substitutions and watched Wright take over the fourth quarter for the second time in this series.
“We had the matchups we liked in that situation,” Toronto Coach Dwane Casey said of Toronto’s final burst. “I thought Delon Wright did a good job down the stretch handling the ball and gave us an opportunity for Kyle and DeMar to get off the ball a little bit more, and I thought that was the difference.”
While Wright was flowing with his team, the Wizards were out of sorts, and Oubre took six shots in the fourth quarter, the same as Wall and Beal. You knew the Wizards were in trouble when, out of a timeout with 2:58 remaining, Oubre took what was described in the official play-by-play as an “11-foot driving, floating shot.” He missed. It looked bad, for Oubre and for Brooks, who surely didn’t want the play to be run like that. The Wizards were down 99-93 at the time. It would get worse.
This is why the Wizards need more than confidence and even a good game plan. They might need some unexpected bench players to step up. They definitely need to use Mike Scott, who played only 14 minutes Wednesday despite having a good series. They need Markieff Morris to awaken. And they can’t go 5 for 26 from three-point range while Toronto makes 11 of 25 attempts.
“We just missed some shots,” Beal said. “We feel like we got a lot of good ones.”
Said Oubre: “We know we can shoot, so our confidence isn’t wavering. . . . It could be worse. You’ve got to look up. You can’t sulk. If we sulk, we dig ourselves a grave. We’ll be ready.”
Ready for what? To win? Or to compete and fall short to a team that is built better?
The Wizards have been here before. It’s strangely comforting, but it’s also win-or-else time again. And they know how painful “or else” feels.