It concluded as it should have, with the No. 1 seed outlasting and subtly outclassing the No. 8. For six games, the series was tight, and the Wizards were just good enough to lament things they could have done better to win. But the better, deeper and smarter team triumphed. In a 102-92 victory Friday night at Capital One Arena, Toronto dominated the fourth quarter, outscoring Washington 29-14 and exaggerating a key factor in its 4-2 series win.
The Raptors used their 10-man rotation to wear down the Wizards again, and when the story wasn’t about depth and roster construction, it was about the Raptors playing a simple and unselfish game while the Wizards hurt themselves with plays of low basketball IQ, unreliable defense and an inability to trust each other.
That was the difference between the Raptors, a legitimate Finals contender, and the Wizards, a would-be contender that has yet to back up its bold talk about teams ducking it with irrefutable proof of why it should inspire fear.
As Toronto advances to the second round, Washington must learn from its earliest playoff exit of the John Wall/Bradley Beal era. Wall and Beal had led the Wizards into the second round during their first three playoff appearances, in 2014, 2015 and 2017. This time, they’re one and done. They put themselves in a poor position, slipping into the playoffs as the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference and with the worst record, at 43-39, of any postseason qualifier this year.
Bad luck burdened them, starting with Markieff Morris missing the start of the season after sports hernia surgery and then being forced to play 41 games without all-star point guard Wall. Still, despite the injury challenges, they had ample opportunity to squeeze more out of the regular season, but they couldn’t. They were too lax, too unfocused. Their punishment was being forced to play a team the caliber of Toronto in the first round. If the Wizards had been more professional, if they had played to their talent, they could have avoided such a difficult matchup until at least the second round. The Raptors finished off the Wizards, but only after Washington had suffered dozens of self-inflicted wounds in falling to the eighth seed.
On Friday, the task of resisting elimination and forcing a Game 7 went from challenging to unlikely when it was announced that Otto Porter Jr. would miss the game with a left lower leg injury that required surgery. Without Porter, the Wizards lost their No. 3 scorer, and even though he hadn’t performed well while fighting through injury in this series, the threat of Porter is always an asset. He’s a key to the Wizards’ offensive spacing. His defensive versatility matters on a team with limitations on that end, and his hustle and willingness to do the little things energizes the team. In addition, the Wizards are light on dependable wing players, a roster flaw that is magnified whenever Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr. isn’t available.
After the game, Toronto Coach Dwane Casey emphasized Porter’s importance to the Wizards, calling him “one of those glue guys” that every good team needs.
“He does a little bit of everything,” Casey said, adding that Porter concerned him greatly coming into the series.
Still, the Wizards were poised to win and force a Game 7 through three quarters. They led 78-73. Wall and Beal were rolling; they had combined for 45 points at that point. The Wizards’ defense was playing a decent game. But they weren’t ahead by enough to withstand their worst fourth quarter of the series.
In that final period, the Wizards made just 4 of 16 field goals. The Raptors were 10 of 22. They closed out the series with Fred VanVleet playing 8½ minutes of the fourth and Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam playing the entire 12 minutes. Toronto’s best player, DeMar DeRozan, played just 3½ minutes at the end. Nevertheless, they kicked the Wizards’ immature fannies.
“They just outplayed us,” said Morris, who had 12 points and 15 rebounds. “We withstood them as long as we could. They just outplayed us.”
Wall and Beal faltered for the second straight fourth quarter. They scored 10 of the Wizards’ 14 points, but Beal was 2 of 5 from the field. Wall missed all four of his shots. Beal and Wall played 43 and 40 minutes, respectively. Toronto didn’t have a player on the court for more than Lowry’s 33 minutes.
The depth was a series-deciding factor, even if Wizards Coach Scott Brooks didn’t want to admit it. He didn’t want to make excuses, which was commendable. But Brooks also sounds like a dinosaur when discussing his lack of concern about the minutes that his best players log.
“In the playoffs, high minutes are overrated,” Brooks said before the game, explaining once again that long playoff timeouts should count as rest.
Afterward, Brooks continued to refuse to consider the theory that Beal and Wall were dragging too much at the end.
“I don’t think the minutes were the deciding factor,” Brooks said. “I think they’re a really good team, and they beat us fair and square. As tough as it is to say . . . they had a better year than us.”
Here’s the counterargument: When you’re playing the deepest team in the NBA, and they are proving that it’s possible to use 10 or 11 players without repercussions in the playoffs, there is going to be an effect late in the game. The Raptors kept employing fresh bodies. The Wizards kept putting the burden on their stars, one of whom recovered from knee surgery just in time for the playoffs. And while Beal was healthy the entire season, he had shown signs of fatigue after playing all 82 games and carrying the Wizards without Wall. Washington was bad all season in the fourth quarter, but Brooks could have managed Wall and Beal a little better in this series, even with his inferior bench, to maximize the possibility of those stars having more to give down the stretch.
It will forever be the story of the 2017-18 Wizards: They couldn’t finish. You can blame a variety of factors, not just Brooks. They couldn’t finish. And now, they vanish into a critical offseason in which they must find a way to advance beyond kinda, sorta good.
“It’s always tough,” Brooks said of the end. “It’s always tough.”
This one may be the toughest of the past five seasons because it verifies that the Wizards need more than simply time to grow to reach loftier goals. The long, detailed search for the answer starts now.