Wizards show some fight, top Raps 122-103, get series to 2-1

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WASHINGTON (AP) — All of about 2 1/2 minutes into the game, Washington forward Markieff Morris and Toronto’s OG Anunoby needed to be separated after a near-fight that drew in other players.

Early in the third quarter Friday night, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was called for a flagrant foul when he swiped a hand across Bradley Beal‘s forehead as the Wizards guard went in for a breakaway layup. Later in that period, things really came close to spiraling out of control, but John Wall‘s bodyguard interceded when Washington’s All-Star jawed with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka.

As that scene unfolded on the court, spectators directed “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants at the opponents from Canada, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blared over the arena’s speakers. Amid all the ruckus, Beal and Wall kept their heads and helped the Wizards pull further and further away for a 122-103 victory.

What was once a dull, lopsided series is suddenly quite interesting.

Beal heeded his coach’s plea to “do his job” by scoring 21 of his 28 points in the first half, Wall delivered 28 points and 14 assists, and the eighth-seeded Wizards cut their Eastern Conference first-round playoff deficit to 2-1.

“We’re not going out to try to box every game,” Beal said, before describing Morris as “a bully with a smile.”

Added Beal: “We came out tonight with an edge about ourselves.”

After letting the Raptors grab the first 2-0 series lead in franchise history, the Wizards came home and checked off every box coach Scott Brooks presented. They got Beal more involved after he made only three shots in Game 2; they actually led after the first quarter, 30-29; they produced 19 turnovers that led to 28 points.

“They came out and punched us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “And we allowed them to.”

He meant that figuratively, of course, but the choice of words sure seemed apt.

The Raptors did appear to take the worse of the physical nature of the game.

DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 23 points, wore a Band-Aid under his right eye afterward. Reserve Pascal Siakam held a bag of ice over a cut on his lip that required three stitches.

“Ain’t nobody fighting out here,” said Lowry, who had 19 points and eight assists. “I mean, it got physical, but ain’t nobody fighting. It’s a heated moment, but that’s the game of basketball.”

Each team boasts a pair of elite, All-Star guards. This time, Washington’s pair came out on top.

The start initially had the look of “Here we go again,” as Toronto moved ahead 27-18. The Raptors, after all, outscored Washington by an average of 11 points in the first period over Games 1 and 2. But this time, Washington responded with a 12-point run capped by Beal’s 3 with under a minute left.

Beal scored 12 in the quarter a day after he, Wall and Brooks met to discuss ways to get Beal more involved in the offense. Entering Friday, Beal was averaging only 14 points in the playoffs, well below his 22.6 average during the regular season.

“We need both our guys to step up,” Brooks said about Beal and Wall. “It was good tonight.”

 

Raptors set records, exorcise demons in Game 2 rout of Wizards

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Maybe the pessimistic Toronto fan base is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe the sports talking heads that watch NBA basketball on Christmas and during the playoffs expect a meltdown.

But the Toronto Raptors have started to believe in themselves.

Toronto set records and exorcised demons in Game 2 against Washington Tuesday night. Here are just a few highlights:

• They set the franchise playoff record for most points in the first quarter (44), the first half (76), and the game (130).

• They set the franchise playoff record for most threes made in a half with 11 (on 22 shots).

DeMar DeRozan looked completely comfortable in the postseason spotlight with a career playoff high 37 points on the night.

• When John Wall led a Wizards comeback to cut what had been a 23-point deficit to 10 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Raptors got back to executing and defending and quickly put the game out of reach again.

• Most importantly the Toronto Raptors had never been up 2-0 in a playoff series.

They are now after a 130-119 rout of the Wizards Tuesday night in Toronto.

Game 3 is in Washington on Friday night — the Wizards better bring a real sense of urgency to that game.

Because they didn’t on Tuesday night. This game was effectively over in the first quarter.

From the opening tip it was all Toronto, racing out to a 14-4 lead, hitting threes, with OG Anunoby getting seven fast points. And the run just kept going and going and going, soon it was 34-13 Toronto. They are getting shots at the rim and if the Wizards defense collapsed they kicked it out for an open three. The Wizards had no defensive answers.

On the other end, the Wizards stuck primarily with a Wall/Marcin Gortat pick and roll, which the Raptors defended well with two players so they could stay home on shooters. Energized by their offense, the Raptors were making defensive plays, Kyle Lowry in particular. The Wizards were the opposite. The Raptors just kept getting open threes.

Meanwhile, DeRozan just got to his spots on the floor, attacked, and tore the Wizards up.

“He’s grown a lot (in reading the game),” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “Two years ago, I don’t know what he would have done, but he did an excellent job of reading what the defense was doing to him and making them pay.”

Washington made it a little interesting, cutting the lead to 10 after three quarters behind John Wall’s 22 points, but the Raptors had answers to every Wizards push.

For the Wizards, there are a lot of questions to answer going home to effectively a must-win situation.

How can a team down 0-1 in a series come out flat, without any sense of urgency in Game 2? How can they find some urgency before Game 3?

How can they get Bradley Beal going? He has averaged just 14 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting through two games, and hitting just 27.3 from three.

“The Raptors are doing a job with him, they’re being physical,” Wizards’ coach Scott Brooks said of Beal.”He’s missed some open shots, he hasn’t been able to get into the lane and to the free throw line…. We need him. We’re going to have trouble beating this team if he doesn’t play better. He will.”

How can Washington get Marcin Gortat going?

However, by far the biggest issue is Washington’s defense, which has allowed an average of 122 points per game through the first two in this series. The Wizards’ lazy defensive habits from the regular season have come home to roost in this series — the Raptors are moving the ball, cutting off the ball, penetrating into the paint then kicking out to wide-open shooters and the Wizards are being caught flat-footed on all of it.

Ty Lawson, signed just before the playoffs after having been in the Chinese league this season, played his first game for the Wizards and provided a little spark (especially with Wall in foul trouble at points). He had 14 points on 10 shots with eight assists. But Lawson was never a great defender, and he literally just joined this team — he has no defensive chemistry with his teammates. He’s not a long-term answer.

Washington has been a Jekyll and Hyde team all season. The other team had better show up Friday or this series is all but over.

Serge Ibaka scores 23, Raptors win Game 1 against Wizards 114-106

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TORONTO (AP) — Serge Ibaka had 23 points and 12 rebounds, Delon Wright scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, and the Toronto Raptors snapped a 10-game losing streak in playoff series openers by beating the Washington Wizards 114-106 on Saturday.

DeMar DeRozan added 17 points, C.J. Miles and OG Anunoby each had 12, and Kyle Lowry had 11 points and nine assists for the Raptors, whose only previous victory in the opening game of a playoff series came in the second round against Philadelphia in 2001.

Toronto entered having lost an NBA-worst 10 consecutive Game 1s since, including six at home.

The top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, Toronto made 16 of 30 3-point attempts, with Miles making four, and Ibaka and Wright each hitting three.

The Raptors host Game 2 on Tuesday.

John Wall had 23 points and 15 assists for the Wizards, while Markieff Morris had 22 points and 11 rebounds.

Bradley Beal scored 19 points for Washington, while Mike Scott had 14 and Marcin Gortat 12.

Washington led 91-88 when Scott was called for a flagrant foul after using his elbow to knock Lowry down early in the fourth. Lowry made both free throws and, on the ensuing possession, Wright gave Toronto the lead with a layup. After a missed shot by Morris, Miles hit a 3 to cap a 7-0 run that gave the Raptors a 95-91 lead with 9:26 left.

Kelly Oubre Jr. hit a 3 and Gortat made a dunk to put Washington back in front, but Wright and Miles each hit 3-pointers as Toronto used an 8-0 run to take a 103-96 lead with 6:27 left, and never trailed again.

Anunoby made his first two 3-pointers and led Toronto with eight points in the first as the Raptors led 28-23 after one. Wall scored nine points in the opening quarter.

Gortat and replacement Ian Mahinmi each had two fouls before the first quarter was half over. Gortat picked up his first when he fouled Jonas Valanciunas on the opening tip.

Beal scored seven points in the second, five of them in a 10-2 Wizards run that gave Washington a 42-41 lead with 6:20 left in the half. Scott had eight points in the quarter as the Wizards led 59-55 at halftime.

Toronto reclaimed the lead with an 11-2 spurt to start the third. DeRozan scored 12 points in the quarter as the Raptors took a slim 86-85 lead into the fourth.

The game was about five minutes late tipping off because of an apparent issue with moisture on the court along the baseline adjacent to Washington’s bench. Arena staffers continued to dry the area periodically throughout the game.

 

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Raptors ready to test new offense in championship-or-bust playoffs

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri spent a lot of time talking about a “culture reset.” Players debated how significant the change was for Toronto – which kept coach Dwane Casey and stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan – and whether it would stick. Then, the Raptors spent all year proving their revamped offensive style worked, at least in the regular season.

They play faster, dribble less, pass more and shoot more 3-pointers. Toronto won 59 games and ranked third in points per possession.

Now, the moment of truth arrives.

“That’s the reason we did it, to try to do something different in the playoffs,” said Lowry, whose team will face the Wizards in the first round.

Sure, the Raptors’ 59 wins are a franchise record. But they’ve been successful in the regular season before. In the last four years, they won 48, 49, 56 and 51 regular-season games.

They just faltered in the playoffs every time:

  • 2014: No. 3 seed, lost to Nets in first round
  • 2015: No. 4 seed, swept by the Wizards in first round
  • 2016: No. 2 seed, beat Pacers in seven games in first round while being outscored, beat Heat (who held same record as No. 6 seed) in seven games in second round, lost to Cavaliers in conference finals in most lopsided six-game series in NBA history (-15.5 points per game)
  • 2017: No. 3 seed, beat Bucks in first round while outscoring them by just four points, swept by Cavaliers in second round

Toronto’s offense particularly stalled. Flow stagnated, and Lowry and DeRozan weren’t nearly good enough to handle all their isolations. Here are the Raptors annual offensive ratings, in the regular season (black) and postseason (red):

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Despite all these years of struggling – or maybe because of all these years of struggling – Lowry has high hopes for this postseason.

How does this team define success? Lowry barely stifles a laugh.

“Championship,” he said.

Anything less is a failure?

“Yeah,” he said.

With that attitude, Lowry isn’t worried Toronto would face mighty LeBron James and the Cavs in the second round rather than the conference finals. The Raptors might have been the East’s second-best team last year, but because they had to play Cleveland in the second round, Boston got the title of East runner-up.

“We’ve got to go out there and chase ourselves and be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “We can’t worry about about nobody else right now but ourselves.”

The idea the Raptors will revert to bad habits when defenses tighten or that the reasons their offense dipped from the regular season to the playoffs weren’t addressed by this overhaul? Players dismiss that.

“That’s our offense,” Lowry said. “Nothing is going to change. We’re going to play our game.”

Said DeRozan: “Playing in a way to where you can’t key in on one or two guys, and it’s fun. As long as we go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year, it’ll show.”

Yet, Casey admitted he’s a little nervous to see how the new offense holds up in the postseason – though also confident.

“The playoffs are a different animal, and we feel like we have an advantage now,” he said.

The first test will come Saturday, when Toronto hosts Washington in Game 1. We’ll immediately know whether the same old demons still haunt the Raptors. They’re 1-12 all-time in Game 1s with 10 straight losses, including an astounding six at home.

Lose Saturday, and all the usual questions and doubts reemerge. Win, and the path to progress remains wide open.

“Mentally, when you fail over and over, you’ve been to a place and you don’t make it, you understand what you need to do better, how you need to do it better,” DeRozan said. “As long as you get that opportunity to do it again, you understand what not to do.”

There’s a sense this Toronto is battle-tested and ready for a deep playoff run. But is one year enough to fix a half decade of tendencies?

No matter how this postseason goes, the Raptors’ “culture reset” isn’t finished.

“There’s some more things we’d like to do defensively,” Casey said. “In this situation next year, we will be doing them to help us also in the playoffs.”