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Can the Raptors exorcise their playoff demons?

While the Wizards-Raptors series may not be the most intriguing matchup for basketball reasons, it is surely intriguing for other reasons. As far as 1-8 matchups go, this feels different. The line on the series per Westgate is -400 on the Raptors, whereas the 1-8 matchup in the West has Houston at -1400 (in other words, you’d have to pay $1000 more betting on Houston to make $100). 

Vegas is no stranger to the Raptors’ postseason ineptitude. Under Dwayne Casey, they’re 12-27-2 against the spread in the playoffs over four years. They’ve been bounced in just about every possible way. And despite the fanatics surrounding the Air Canada Centre each and every year — whether it’s Jurassic Park, Masai Ujiri cussing out the opponent before a game, etc. — the Raptors can’t win a Game 1. They just can’t.

Our Game 1 is our Game 7, to be honest,” Kyle Lowry said at a press conference Friday. “We’ve gotta play like it’s Game 7, like it’s our last game.” An appropriate sentiment for a team whose core is an astounding 5-for-5 in losing Game 1s at home. 

I don’t know. I only think about it when y’all bring it up, honestly,” DeMar DeRozan said. We been great at home all year… Our swag is at an all-time high.”

Maybe so… After all, it was the most successful regular season in the franchise’s history. Fifty-nine wins. Tied for the league’s best home record. And the highest point-differential (+7.9) for an Eastern Conference team since the championship 2012-13 Miami Heat. Yet, for as long as the eternal playoff struggle lingers, Raptors fans will be far too insecure to have swag. 

“This team and their on-court play only perpetuates that feeling… year after year,” said Raptors fan-blogger Harsh Dave. “I think a lot of Raptors fans have playoff PTSD. Literally every single playoff run, we’ve had a demon come out of the woodwork.”

This year’s first demon: the Wizards. “I feel like if Toronto loses Game 1, all the ghosts of playoff-failure-past will jump on their collective backs,” said Rashad Mobley, a Wizards beat writer for Truth About It. In 2015, the Wizards torched the Raptors out of the playoffs in a neat, four-game sweep. John Wall did his best Magic Johnson impression, pushing the ball up the court at, distributing easy buckets for his teammates. Bradley Beal scored at will. Marcin Gortat averaged a double-double. Paul Pierce shot 58% from three.

The main core, minus Paul Pierce (*Raptors fan shudders*) remain the same. As does the Raptors’ core. It’s no wonder why Wizards fans and experts aren’t exactly intimidated. “I think Toronto is the best matchup for this team,” Mobley says. 

It’s a revelation in some ways that the Wizards can exude any confidence after their regular season. Forty-three wins. Plagued by injuries. Wall played in exactly half of their games. They hit their stride amid his absence in February, and so did Bradley Beal, who averaged 23 points per game on 48% shooting in the first month without him. Then they came crashing back down to earth and finished the season losing 14 of their last 21 games. Wall’s return didn’t change much, and chemistry issues lingered.

“It’s almost as if Wall forgot what made him so effective,” Mobley said. “There were times where wall had this mindset where it was like ‘You know what? They said they didn’t need me. I’m going to show them.’ And it was like he had blinders on.”

Wall has played just four games since his injury and averaged 6.7 turnovers in those contests. The first two saw him shoot a combined 9-27 from the field. He almost redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Cleveland before a missed shot and turnover led to a 119-115 loss.

Wall was excellent — 29 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds, and 4-5 from three — in a win against Boston on April 10. But ultimately the Wizards lost the next night against Orlando and fell to the eighth seed anyways.

“That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with here. If the Wizards get swept, nobody will be surprised. If they win the series, nobody will be surprised,” Mobley said. “It’s maddening.” 

A big part of the series will rest on the Raptors’ effectiveness in containing the guards that caused them so much grief in the 2015 sweep. Beal was a monster against the Raptors during the regular season, putting up a statline of 28.8 points a game on 50% shooting. Beal has given the Raptors fits by slithering around screens and hitting a high percentage of his jumpers. The Raptors have more options than ever for defending him. In the regular season, the Wizards offense thrived when OG Anunoby guarded Beal.

Norman Powell was actually most effective containing Powell per, something Dwayne Casey took notice of. Powell saw his minutes nearly double in the three games he played against Washington. He has also been a revelation in the last two postseasons for Toronto. 

Should Powell be able to break out of his weird inconsistent streak and knock down his jumpers, expect him to see an increase in minutes. If not, the Raptors could downsize with Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, or even Lowry, who all had relative success when matched on Beal despite a small sample size. 

As for Wall, the Raptors haven’t seen him since 2016 when he scorched them with 33 points on 13-19 shooting. But since the sweep, he’s been uneven against Toronto. He’s shot under 40% from the field in the last five games versus the Raptors, while tallying just a 1.7 assist to turnover ratio. It’s also interesting to note that, aside from the sweep, the Wizards have lost eight straight against Toronto in games in which Wall has played.

Another big factor that played a part in the Raptors successful regular season was their bench. The lineup of Miles, Poltl, Siakham, VanVleet, and Wright was the second best in the NBA this season for lineups that racked up at least 300 minutes. They outscored teams by 18.5 points per 100 possessions and did so while shooting the three at a remarkable rate.

Their depth bodes well for how the Raptors can play out of the pick-and-roll. Historically, the Raptors have struggled against the high-intensity pressure of playoff defense. Scott Brooks likes his bigs to pressure the ball-handler out of pick-and-rolls. It worked in 2015. It looks like this:

Should the Wizards coerce the ball handler into becoming a passer, the Raptors have more flexibility with the big as a decision-maker than in years past. Ibaka, Poeltl, and Siakham are all better options than Patrick Patterson. Casey has also sprinkled in some post-PnR plays that have helped. When it’s clicking, it looks like this:

“That’s what’s problematic,” Mobley said. “If Ibaka floats out to the three-point line it will expose the Wizards, because Gortat is not that type the centre. Mahinmi and Morris are agile and mobile, but they pick up fouls in bunches.” Casey has not been known to play Ibaka at the five, but he may consider downsizing to stretch out the Wizards. “They’ve been exposed when they have to defend five shooters. Not just by good teams, by bad teams.”

It’s also important to note that DeRozan’s evolution as a passer has been a key component in the “culture change.” If he can adjust his game and find shooters when his shots aren’t falling, it could make a world of difference. He wasn’t making passes like this in 2015:

As is the case in every Raptors’ series, a lot rests on the first game. “Oh my god,” said Dave, thinking about the possibility of yet another Game 1 loss. “I’m definitely going to drown my sorrows on Twitter by making fun of them. But on the inside I’ll definitely be battling some demons.” 

Raptors’ fans have every reason to be swaggering based on the regular season. But Dave, like many other fans have seen it all come crashing down too often. Meanwhile Washington, a team that limped into the lowest seed in a bad conference, can feel comfortable about their chances. 

“There’s an arrogance there,” Rashad said. “We swept them. We beat them twice without John Wall. The Raptors are headcases in the playoffs.”

The headcases have proven it every single year. Will 2018 provide us another chapter?

Raptors in 6.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

Who was the Raptors' leading scorer last time they won Game 1 of a series?
Created 4/14/18
  1. Chris Bosh
  2. Vince Carter
  3. Tracy McGrady
  4. Rafer Alston

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