TORONTO — There’s a belief, because the Washington Wizards have star power and a playoff pedigree and the Toronto Raptors are an understated success story, that this first-round series amounts to an even matchup. Or at least it’s as even as it gets when a No. 1 seed spars with a No. 8.
The top of the Wizards’ roster might be a little better than the Raptors’ best players. Three years ago, when the teams were burgeoning contenders, Washington swept Toronto in the first round. And the Raptors are notorious for feeling playoff pressure. It all creates a sense that this will be a long and close series, even though Toronto lapped the Wizards in the regular season and won 16 more games.
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. 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.
While the gap between the teams isn’t wide, it is still noticeable. Toronto is the deepest team in the NBA, and in a fast-paced matchup of great athleticism and end-to-end action, that great depth exposes the Wizards’ mediocre depth. And then there is the biggest problem the Wizards have in this series: They’re facing an opponent that seems to have developed an unflappable commitment to an identity and an improved style of play built around ball movement and trust. The Raptors know who they are; the Wizards are still all over the place.
In the fourth quarter of Game 1, the Wizards had a chance to win. They led early in the fourth. After falling behind 14-4 during a strange start that included a 15-minute delay because of a roof leak and a Marcin Gortat foul on the opening tip, the Wizards played quite well. If the Raptors were a weak No. 1 seed, Washington would have stolen this game. Instead, the Raptors responded to the Wizards’ game plan to keep DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry from beating them by sharing the ball, playing 11 players and making 16 of 30 three-pointers.
In doing so, the Raptors proved their regular season style of play is playoff-pliant. The Wizards blitzed and corralled DeRozan and Lowry, limiting them to 10-for-26 shooting. They forced the Raptors to turn to Serge Ibaka, Delon Wright and a host of role players for scoring. In the past, that has been a formula for beating Toronto. Not this time.
Ibaka scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Wright played the role of fourth-quarter closer, scoring 11 of his 18 points in the final period. CJ Miles made four three-pointers so well timed that they felt like 14. The Raptors shot 53.2 percent overall and had six players score in double figures. Seven players made at least one three-pointer. And this was without injured guard Fred VanVleet, who is a major part of their bench.
The Raptors possess a kind of firepower that the Wizards can’t match. They have to tighten up and go back to the defensive drawing board. Beating the Raptors isn’t as easy as forcing DeRozan and Lowry to abandon their one-on-one talent anymore. The Raptors aren’t exactly an overpowering team, but their balance is a dangerous weapon.
“They are a good team,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “They are the No. 1 seed for a reason. They have a lot of good players. Guys off the bench came in and stepped up. VanVleet did not play tonight, but Wright came in and had a terrific game. That’s why they are so hard to guard. We have to do a better job of guarding all their players.”
If you look at Game 1 as essentially the feeling-out opener to a best-of-seven series, then the Wizards are fine despite the loss. It’s encouraging that John Wall contributed 23 points and 15 assists despite 6-for-20 shooting. It’s encouraging that the Wizards shot the ball well (47.7 percent) without Wall and Bradley Beal having outstanding games. They had no problem running with Toronto most of time, but in key moments, the Wizards still suffer from a lack of concentration or trust in one another or the limitations of a roster that is inferior to Toronto’s collection of talent. In those moments, the Raptors show why they’re the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Wizards show why they regressed to eighth this season.
The idea of what Washington could be, or should be, skews the perception of what they actually are. As Lowry said afterward: “That team is a really good team. They’re not a normal eight seed.”
The Wizards aren’t, but over 82 games, they earned this seed by playing sloppy and unfocused at times. For as well as Toronto shot the ball Saturday, Brooks still sighed and said: “Some guys can just flat-out shoot, and they don’t put the ball on the floor as well. We have to know that, understand that, and make sure they get away from their strengths. We let a few of their guys, that just can flat-out shoot, shoot a lot of threes.”
Washington forward Markieff Morris, who had 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, put it more succinctly: “We can’t allow them to succeed on stuff we know they’re doing.”
Both Brooks and Morris are saying kindly that the Wizards aren’t playing smart basketball. They’re not following the scouting report. They’re not thinking in the heat of the moment. These are painfully familiar issues. And if they want to make this a competitive series, they have to lock in and do the little things — rotating on defense, limiting unforced turnovers, recognizing who’s on the floor, acknowledging their own limitations and playing to their strengths — better. Toronto has become a solid team that will trust itself. There’s no rattling the Raptors or getting them to play to a lower level. The Wizards must elevate.
“Every time we’re on the floor, we’re pounding that style of play,” DeRozan said.
It’s a style that will be too much for the Wizards to handle until they start playing solid, focused basketball for the entire game. They showed spurts of what it will take, but now they know that’s not good enough.
This isn’t an even matchup, not with Washington still laboring to perform with consistency. The Wizards can’t fool themselves. They have a lot of masking and adjusting to do.