Raptors get the Game 1 monkey off their back

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TORONTO — As the buzzer sounded and the victorious Raptors funneled through the home tunnel and into their locker room, their exquisitely-tailored president, Masai Ujiri, clapped his hands as his players breezed by.

“F—ing a–h—s,” snarled Ujiri. “We won Game 1.”

Who is Ujiri’s target here? Perhaps an army of pundits who have been hammering home the Raptors’ futile record in recent Game 1s in the lead-up to the postseason. Maybe critics around the league who, even as the Raptors tallied 59 wins this season and nabbed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, still whispered doubts.

Most likely, it was relief disguised as invective, and an affirmation that, for the next several weeks — as it’s been for several years — it’sToronto against the world. After ten consecutive Game 1 losses, the Raptors won the first battle of their campaign, a 114-106 victory over the Washington Wizards.

“It’s over with now,” said DeMar DeRozan after the game.

DeRozan is right, and the albatross draped around the team’s neck has been magnified unduly. Multi-season streaks in the NBA are funny things because each team is its own organism — different players, different schemes, different vibes. Should the 2018 team pay for the misfortunes of its 2015 ancestor? Randomness happens in sports, and the narrative was becoming stale, particularly for a team that has demonstrated marked improvement.

Instead, the Raptors want to talk about the depth of their well-constructed roster, 11 of whom saw meaningful minutes in Saturday night’s win. They want to talk about a core of young players that have outperformed projections — guys like Delon Wright (18 points on 7-for-10 shooting with four assists in 25 minutes), rookie OG Anunoby (12 points on 5-for-9 shooting, a couple of 3s, a few brilliant cuts to the basket, and yeoman’s work defending John Wall to start the second half), along with big men Pascal Siakam and Lucas Nogueira (both a plus-8 in game one, the latter a catalyst in the fourth quarter when the Raptors wrested control of the game).

They also want to talk about their star guards, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, neither of whom had an effective first half, but responded to Washington’s aggressive pressure by empowering teammates. Opponents scheming for Toronto tend to adopt a specific game plan: Take the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan and make it find Toronto’s big men. From the opening tip, the Wizards deployed this strategy, and Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas happily obliged, combining for 13 points in the quarter.

“He’s always got the green light to force the issue if it’s there,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey about DeRozan. “The key point is … when it’s not there. You don’t force the issue. You have to give it up and make a play. That’s what Kyle and DeMar have been doing all year — different than last year. If this were last year, they would be feeling the pressure of having to score and put all of the burden of their backs. I didn’t feel that tonight.”

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The Raptors soar in the fourth to sink the Wizards and win a much needed playoff opener.

More than anything, the Raptors want to talk about their evolution. A team that ranked third in isolations in 2016-17 ranked ninth this season (and fifth in efficiency on such sets). Fifth from the bottom in passes per possession last season, Toronto finished squarely in the middle of the pack at 16th. Possessions that used to break off at the 12-second mark after a first trigger was blunted now move into second-side actions, as the Raptors demonstrated in the first quarter when a pick-and-roll with DeRozan and Valanciunas met opposition. The ball moved decisively to Lowry for a dribble-handoff with Ibaka. And when the Wizards defended that, the ball was reversed to the weak side, where Anunoby drained a 3-pointer.

In previous years, the Raptors might have pounded away a well-defended possession like this with a one-on-one freelance job. But in 2018, they problem-solve, finding an opportune look for an open man. If DeRozan and Lowry continue to pressure the defense and trust their teammates, those shots will be there all series for Anunoby, Wright, Ibaka (who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and a couple of blocks), reserve C.J. Miles (who converted four of seven attempts from beyond the arc) and Fred VanVleet, when the backup point guard returns later in the series from a sore right shoulder.

“We’ve got the utmost confidence in our teammates,” DeRozan said. “The way we’ve been playing all year, the style of play we’ve been playing is having trust in our teammates to make the next play. You see it.”

DeRozan added that he and Lowry actually invite the traps, fully aware that even if the pressure makes life a little more difficult for them, high-percentage looks materialize for everyone else on the floor. DeRozan scored 17 points (6-for-17 from the field), with Lowry adding 11 (4-for-9), and the two combined for 15 assists. Meanwhile, folks not named Lowry and DeRozan for Toronto hit 13 of their 21 3-point attempts on Saturday.

For Lowry, it wasn’t a statistically impressive game, but as has been the case for the bulk of his career, his instincts guided the Raptors to success. Rarely did a sequence of possessions go by when Lowry’s dogged defense wasn’t a factor. He hounded Beal one-on-one midway through the third quarter, inducing an ill-advised drive and shot to the basket, then 15 seconds later on the following possession planted himself in Wall’s path on the edge of the paint to draw a charge.

Saturday wasn’t a perfect performance for Toronto, and the team will fight through an April ice storm on Sunday and report to their new facility near the shore of Humber Bay. The Raptors will work to tighten up their pick-and-roll defense, and integrate some new counters into their offense to respond to what they encountered in Game 1.

What they won’t do is revisit the vestiges of some old streak from a period that’s barely visible in their rear-view mirror.



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