Raptors clench in the clutch, lose series lead
This is not a good look for the Toronto Raptors.
For an entire regular season, and then for the first two games of the playoffs, the Raptors looked as though they had rewritten their script.
They were averaging about 27 passes more per game, almost six more assists, attempting nine more three-pointers and playing at a pace that added three more possessions per 48 minutes.
All these improvements were predicated on trust. With a rotation that went 12-deep at times, all the players were held accountable, and for the majority of 82 games, they thrived on that level of responsibility.
Delon Wright was shooting threes with conviction, Pascal Siakam was pushing the ball up the floor off rebounds, and all three Raptors centres were making plays for others from the high post, low post or rolling off picks.
Virtually every single player could be used as an example of the changes that Dwane Casey and his coaching staff implemented into their offence, yet, in this Game 4, they were all responsible for the complete abandonment of it.
Tied at 80 heading into the fourth quarter, the moment was Toronto’s to make theirs. After asserting their presence as the No.1 seed by taking a commanding 2-0 lead, this was an opportunity to assure a close-out opportunity on their home floor in just the fifth game of the series.
Casey trotted out one of their most effective lineups in Kyle Lowry, Wright, C.J. Miles, Siakam and Jakob Poeltl, and jumped ahead with an 8-0 run.
There were some warning signs, though.
Lowry ran a pick-and-roll with Siakam, and trusted the pass by giving Siakam the opportunity to make a play. It left Wright wide open in the left corner, and Siakam trusted the pass yet again. Wright didn’t trust himself, though, and pump-faked before trying to find what he hoped would be a better option.
There was none. Lowry was instead forced to drive to the rim with the shot-clock winding down, before Poeltl came down with the rebound. He in turn found Wright open again at the three-point line left-elbow extended, and another pump-fake followed. He was able to find Lowry for an open layup inside, but this was the first sign that the process they had preached throughout the season wasn’t being trusted when the stakes were highest.
This is where Fred VanVleet is most missed. The former Wichita State star had grown accustomed to having those opportunities come his way as he established himself as a member of the Raptors’ closing unit, knocking down his share of clutch shots on the backs of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s penetration.
Both Wright and VanVleet averaged a team-leading nine minutes played per fourth quarter during the regular season, but VanVleet’s ability to space the floor gave Toronto a hired gun who had no fear of the moment.
Over 26 games that were considered clutch (games within five or fewer points with five or fewer minutes remaining), VanVleet took 17 three-pointers — second only to Lowry — and converted 35.3 per cent of them into makes. In 20 such games for Wright, he attempted two shots from beyond the arc.
This isn’t a criticism of Wright, but rather, an attempt to bring light to just how different the roles of the two guards were over the course of the regular season. With VanVleet likely out for the remainder of the series after Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported his injury as a shoulder separation not expected to heal in time, Wright is being asked to play a role he hasn’t had to all season.
The other aspect that hurt Toronto in the fourth quarter was in-game adjustments. Trailing by eight with 9:22 remaining, Washington head coach Scott Brooks turned to most of his starting lineup with the series effectively on the line for his team. Marcin Gortat checked in for Mike Scott, while Otto Porter Jr. returned for Ty Lawson. Kelly Oubre Jr., John Wall, and Bradley Beal rounded out the five.
Casey stuck with his lineup, and they were able to maintain their eight-point advantage for another minute-and-a-half. That’s when Brooks made his final throw of the dice, inserting Markieff Morris for Oubre Jr. as Beal went to the line and made 1-of-2. A Beal pull-up three in semi-transition and a Wall midrange jumper later, the lead was down to two.
Toronto’s head coach called for time on this occasion, and countered the Wizards’ lineup by inserting DeRozan and Ibaka for Miles and Siakam. Despite a better performance from Poeltl, it was a little surprising to see Jonas Valanciunas remain planted to the bench against a lineup he has fared well against. One has to assume OG Anunoby, who hurt his ankle at the end of the first half, wasn’t healthy enough to close.
With six minutes remaining, it was still all to play for with the game tied at 90, and brings about the final problem in how the Raptors closed this game.
After making a would be three-pointer if not for toeing the line, DeRozan went 1-for-7 as the Raptors scored just four points between the 5:50 and 0:20 mark of the fourth quarter while the Wizards collected 12 points of their own to win the game.
Trust is a two-way street. When DeRozan passes the ball, teammates need to be ready for their moment under the spotlight and embrace it.
Here, DeRozan kicks the ball out to Ibaka who declines the shot because he isn’t ready for it. The Raptors eventually end up with a 15-footer for Poeltl, which he makes.
Once again, DeRozan makes the pass to Ibaka, who actually makes a good read to look for Lowry who’s left alone, but just makes a poor choice with a chest pass that Morris is able to deflect rather than a bounce pass which would have been the better percentage play. Turnover.
Again, DeRozan penetrates and kicks out to Wright, who in turn hands the ball back to the all-star shooting guard just two seconds later. I touched on this earlier but VanVleet is either getting a three-pointer off or taking the reigns and trying to get something going himself. DeRozan ends up hoisting a three-pointer himself which he misses.
There were still five other shots he missed, but it’s these moments where — if his teammates shy away from the moment — he will feel the need to do more and he admitted as much after the game.
“That’s just my mindset, being aggressive, wanting to win,” DeRozan said. “Willing to do whatever it took to push it to a win, but with that came some bad shots that I will definitely understand next time.”
It looks extremely ugly in real time, and the optics are made even worse when considering that Beal — who scored 31 points — fouled out with five minutes remaining.
The Raptors return home for Game 5 on Wednesday with the comfort of knowing they’re 36-7 on the year at the Air Canada Centre, and they’ll need the process that earned them that mark to take the series lead and look like East contenders once again.