Wizards rise to the occasion at home, cut Raptors’ series lead in half

Expectations are a funny thing. Like confidence, they can be sky-high one day or non-existent the next.

As Toronto made their transition from a dreary, mundane offence to one that excited and delighted even their harshest critics, the perceptions of them based on the realities of their past needed to be wiped clean. This was a new team.

First in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history, best home record in its history, best road record too, all while in immersing themselves in a process that based on the habits of the past, would have been completely understandable if they took more time to get on the same page.

But as everyone clicked and expectations grew, it made anyone that didn’t show the same progress stick out like a sore thumb. Serge Ibaka was often criticized for making the ball stick, while hero of the past Norman Powell missed the train altogether.

Throughout the course of the season, though, the better teams have shown the Raptors still have room to grow. A 35-2 record against teams under .500 showed them at their best, while the games against teams over that mark resulted in a 24-21 record and stretches — especially in crunch time — that showed there are still lessons to be learned.

On Friday night, that trend continued.

Carrying their first ever 2-0 series lead, the Raptors came to Washington talking a good game. They appeared to have shed the skin of shrinking under the pressure of the playoffs by winning a Game 1 for the first time in 10 series, and carried that momentum to a resounding victory in Game 2.

This was never going to be easy, though.

The Washington Wizards have never lost a first-round series in the John Wall-Bradley Beal era. They had a 12-3 record in the opening series of the playoffs coming into this one, and went 6-0 on their home floor during the 2017 playoffs.

Make that 7-0. The Wizards bench sparked the team and the crowd when they needed it, and in combination with several mental mistakes from the Raptors, cruised to a 122-103 victory on their home floor.

After a positive start where the Raptors jumped out to an early lead, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting where they wanted when they wanted and Jonas Valanciunas carving up Marcin Gortat inside, they created the impression they had in Game 2, that this team was better, and could consistently be better when they wanted.

Whether that seeped into their thinking with a nine-point lead in the opening quarter is impossible to say from about 800 kilometers away, but it’s hard not to relate the carelessness that ensued to a lack of mental focus. The Raptors had four turnovers in the final three-and-a-half minutes of the quarter, leading to nine points for the Wizards and undoing all the good work they had done before it.

It was a new game all over again, except now with a fully engaged crowd and an all-star in Beal who was allowed to get going courtesy of Toronto’s helter-skelter defence. With that momentum, the Wizards pushed the lead to as many as 13 in the second quarter, largely taking advantage of more sloppiness.

Over a 100 second stretch with just over five minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Raptors surrendered two offensive rebounds, committed a three-second violation, and committed two turnovers. Beal finished the half with 21 points, and the Raptors were fighting an extremely uphill battle thereafter.

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) and forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) scuffle with Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and center Jonas Valanciunas, third from right, guard Kyle Lowry, far left, and others during the first half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Friday, April 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

They tried to fight the good fight early in the third quarter, cutting the lead to five courtesy of a Lowry three-pointer and assist for a Valanciunas layup, but the game took another turn after yet another giveaway by the Raptors.

Turning the corner off a screen, Lowry thought he had some daylight but was unaware of a trailing Bradley Beal. The Wizards shooting guard poked the ball away from behind for one of Lowry’s five turnovers in the game and was off to the races. Toronto’s all-star point guard tried to make up for the mistake by chasing him back, but instead inadvertently hit Beal on the head as he attempted to slap the ball away. A Flagrant 1 was the result, and that triggered a 19-8 run for the Wizards that put the game to bed.

After successfully managing the Wizards’ transition game over the first two games, this game was a much different story. Only 14.4 per cent and 16.8 per cent of Washington’s possessions started in transition in Games 1 and 2 respectively, but that number ballooned to 27.8 per cent in Game 3. Combine that with a complete inability to defend in the half-court as the Raptors allowed 115.6 points per 100 possessions in such scenarios, and Toronto built them a mountain too steep to climb.

As you’d suspect, Wall had his fingerprints all over the transition game, finishing with 28 points, 14 assists and four steals and made a concerted effort to get Beal and Gortat going early on.

The physicality was another storyline from this game, as the Wizards — in desperation mode — went from having Markieff Morris have a go at OG Anunoby, to Beal hacking at Valanciunas in a dead-ball situation, and Wall talking plenty of trash to Ibaka, it was clear they made it a point of emphasis to test the mental toughness of the Raptors.

This is all part of the journey as they break away from who they’ve been to be who they want to be in their new skin. There are bound to be growing pains. The expectation of winning this series will remain the same, but how they go about it will set the standard for what they should feel capable of doing in the grand scheme of things.

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