The last time the Washington Wizards hosted a playoff game, they left the fans at Capital One Arena ecstatic and exited the gym as swaggering heroes, thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer by John Wall that ensured the hometown team would play a Game 7 for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. A lot’s changed in 11 months for these Wizards, who entered Friday’s Game 3 of the first round just looking to show signs of life after getting shellacked on Tuesday to fall into an 0-2 hole against the East-leading Toronto Raptors.
Back at home for the first time this postseason, though, Wall, Bradley Beal and company looked like the fire of old for the first time in a long time. The Wizards found their offensive groove in the first half and turned up the defensive pressure on Toronto’s ball-handlers in the second, producing as complete a performance as they have in ages en route to a confident 122-103 win, their seventh straight playoff win in the friendly confines of their home gym. The victory got Washington on the board in the best-of-seven first-round set. The Wizards will look to even the series at 2-2 in D.C. on Sunday evening.
Wall, one of the few Wizards to show consistent signs of life in Game 2, was electric from the opening tip on Friday, scoring 28 points on 12-for-23 shooting to go with 14 assists, six rebounds, four steals and a block in 36 brilliant minutes. He put pressure on the Raptors every time he had a live dribble, penetrating into the teeth of the defense to set up teammates like the newly de-mohawked and suddenly lively Marcin Gortat (18 points on 8-for-10 shooting, thanks mostly to Wall’s service in the pick-and-roll) or pulling up for midrange jumpers that might typically be the sort of shot you’d prefer he take, but that he was making with regularity on Friday.
From the early going, Wall seemed intent on making it clear that, even only a few months removed from knee surgery, he’s capable of being the best player on the court in a matchup with the East’s No. 1 seed. And this time around, he had help in the form of his All-Star running buddy.
Beal, who looked downright comatose on Tuesday, was aggressive in looking for his shot early and often in Game 3. The activity paid off to the tune of 28 points on 10-for-19 shooting (4-for-9 from 3-point range), four rebounds, four assists and three steals in 39 minutes of work for the Wizards, who played a crisper, more ferocious brand of ball that more closely resembled last year’s 49-win bunch than the group that sputtered to a 3-9 finish to the season and seemed desperate for the finish line for large stages of the Game 2 loss.
Game 2 star DeMar DeRozan led the way for the Raptors with 23 points on 10-for-22 shooting with four assists and three rebounds. His backcourt partner and fellow All-Star, Kyle Lowry, finally started to find his shot with 19 points (6-for-14 from the field, 5-for-8 from 3-point range) to go with eight assists, four rebounds and three steals.
But while the top guns paced Toronto’s scoring output, they also seemed downright skittish at times, overpassing, waiting a tick too long and missing a playmaking window, or not taking a shot at an opportune moment. The Raptors struggled mightily in the minutes when DeRozan led the second unit — Toronto was up eight when coach Dwane Casey subbed out starters Lowry, OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas for reserves Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Jakob Poeltl with 2:42 to go in the first quarter, and down by one by quarter’s end — and an offense that had largely roasted the Wizards through two games suddenly began to sputter after halftime.
It became clear quickly that the intensity and physicality would be cranked up a notch in this one. Just three minutes into the affair, Raptors rookie Anunoby got whistled for a foul for pulling Washington forward Markieff Morris to the ground while trying to stop his momentum coming around a curl … and the vet didn’t take too kindly to it, leading to a squabble that earned dueling technical fouls:
Markieff Morris and OG Anunoby get into a little shoving match early in DC
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 21, 2018
Business would pick up midway through the third quarter, too, as Beal and Jonas Valanciunas got tangled up fighting over the ball after the Toronto center held onto it while pleading his case following an offensive foul call. Beal’s extracurricular activity in trying to jar the ball loose earned him a T, too:
And, in the wake of that scuffle, Wall and Serge Ibaka began exchanging pleasantries, ending with them receiving double techs, to boot:
And then Serge Ibaka and John Wall almost get into it pic.twitter.com/8mMS792nzp
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 21, 2018
The Raptors seemed to get flustered by the Wizards’ physicality and the run of play moving against them. They appeared to let go of the rope midway through the third quarter, failing to offer anything more than token resistance to the Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll or to track Beal working off screens. With eight minutes to go in the third, Toronto trailed by six. With just under four minutes to go, they were down 16, and would go on to trail by as many as 22.
No matter how much tinkering Casey did to try to find the lineup combination that would prompt a Toronto comeback — and man, did he try, turning after halftime to recently called-up guard/G-League MVP Lorenzo Brown for the entire fourth quarter, dusting off Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira at center and Norman Powell on the wing, moving around pieces in search of a spark — the Raptors would never again seriously threaten. After scoring 29 and 32 points in the first two quarters, Toronto managed just 42 points total in the second half on 37.5 percent shooting, digging themselves into a hole with sloppy and uninspired play, and then failing to show the requisite get-up-and-go to climb out of it against an opponent hell-bent on making sure they stayed down.
Lowry and DeRozan combined for eight of Toronto’s 19 team turnovers, many of them coming in live-ball situations. The Wizards capitalized on those miscues, ramming the ball back down the Raptors’ throats for 28 points off turnovers and a 21-10 edge in fast break points:
HOUSE OF GUARDS WAVELENGTH pic.twitter.com/0IYtD5xljf
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) April 21, 2018
Thanks to that steady stream of transition buckets, coupled with Wall’s mastery in the screen-and-roll, the Wizards shot 55.3 percent from the field as a team, logging 29 assists on 47 made field goals with five players scoring in double figures and nine finishing with at least five points.
Washington also continued to get a boost from its bench. Mike Scott kept up his torrid shooting, scoring 12 points on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field to go with three rebounds, two assists, a steal and surprisingly active work as both an off-ball cutter and a defensive disruptor in 28 minutes.
Kelly Oubre Jr. helped turn the tide of the game late in the first quarter, stringing together flash plays — a help-side block that turned into a runout dunk, an offensive foul drawn that led him to howl from the floor, a block of a late-clock DeRozan jumper — that put a jolt into both his team and the crowd. Ian Mahinmi played his most active defensive game of the series, and Ty Lawson kept the ball moving and the pressure on in 16 minutes of backup point guard duty.
The Raptors, on the other hand, struggled whenever their second unit took the floor. Wright and Miles combined to shoot 4-for-15. Center Jakob Poeltl battled foul trouble and the fact that Wall seems to see a bullseye on the Polish big man’s chest every time he’s in the game. Pascal Siakam was active, but often seemed undirected. All year long, Toronto hammered opponents when the game went to the benches; now, with linchpin reserve guard Fred VanVleet limited to just three minutes in three postseason games by a right shoulder contusion, the Raptors’ haymaker second unit has suddenly become punchless, allowing Washington to extend leads and buy its starting five some extra opportunities to charge up before coming back in to resume putting a hurt on the Raptors.
For one night, at least, we got a glimpse of what it might look like when everybody eats and Wall’s the one serving dinner. Turns out, it looks pretty good, and, when they lock in and expend energy on both ends of the floor, so can these Wizards. If they can put together another 48-minute outing like this one come Sunday, we’ll officially have a series on our hands.
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