The Toronto Raptors sit one victory away from eliminating the Washington Wizards, but they’ll have to do it on the road.
After suffering back-to-back losses in Washington over the weekend, the Raptors returned to Toronto and defended their home court Wednesday night, beating the Wizards 108-98 to seize a 3-2 series lead.
DeMar DeRozan scored 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting to lead the way for Toronto, while Kyle Lowry had 17 points and 10 assists. Delon Wright (18 points, five assists) and Jonas Valanciunas (14 points, 13 rebounds) served as Toronto’s fourth-quarter spark-plugs.
The Raptors survived a 26-point, nine-rebound performance from John Wall, and 20 points from Bradley Beal. More importantly, the Raps limited the turnovers and hesitancy to shoot that plagued them in Washington.
“That’s the way we have to play, whether we’re here, Washington, wherever it is, we gotta play to our personality,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “We’ve gotta have that personality going into Friday night. If not, it’s going to be a tough night. I have all the confidence in the world our guys are gonna come and play much more like we did tonight.”
The night began with a moment of silence for the victims of Monday’s Toronto tragedy, when a van intentionally drove into a crowd of people in a busy city intersection. During the national anthems, both teams’ players held banners that read #TORONTOSTRONG.
A large crowd gathered in rainy, cold Maple Leaf Square outside the ACC on one of the most notable nights in recent Toronto sports memory. Although video feeds were reportedly spotty, giant screens were playing the Raptors game, the Toronto Maple Leafs Game 7 duel with the Boston Bruins and Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League Final against Chivas Guadalajara.
The Raps came into the night as the only NBA team this season not to suffer three consecutive losses.
In the first quarter, they surrendered just a single turnover after the horrendous 18 total they allowed in Game 4. But Toronto’s ball-moving, three-point focused offence didn’t show up right away Wednesday. Instead, DeRozan was shouldering the scoring load, taking eight of Toronto’s 20 field goal attempts in his 13-point quarter, including the team’s only three-point make of the quarter (they shot just four).
Fred VanVleet was not among the Toronto reserves to take the floor once again, as he continued to nurse his injured shoulder. But unlike in Game 4, Toronto did put five bench players out together in the first half, this time inserting little-used Norman Powell with Wright, Jakob Poeltl, C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam.
DeRozan had 20 points by half-time on 7-of-13 shooting as the Raptors held a slim 48-47 lead. They were starting to look more prepared and willing to shoot the three in the second quarter, doubling their attempts from the first quarter. Coaches had preached to them about pulling the trigger when the opportunity arose, rather than pump-faking themselves out of deep shots like they’d done in Game 4.
John Wall continued to dazzle and confound once again. Every speedy layup and crafty pass further unfolded more of the slick point guard’s remarkable comeback story after missing half the season because of knee surgery. Beal joined his all-star teammate in the scoring, keeping the game uncomfortably close.
But the three balls were starting to fall more regularly for Toronto. C.J. Miles finally hit his first since Game 2, Kyle Lowry hit a few, and DeRozan kept cooking.
The Raps took a narrow 79-78 lead into the final quarter.
Down the stretch, either Lowry or DeRozan remained on the floor at all times. With Toronto being badly out-rebounded, seven-foot Valanciunas was enlisted for his first fourth-quarter minutes of this series.
A momentum shift came with 7:30 left, when Wright manufactured a steal, and then dribbled around Wall to score a wily reverse layup. A big Valanciunas rebound then set up a Lowry go-ahead layup.
Valanciunas figured in several more big plays, stripping Wall of the ball, muscling around Marcin Gortat for points in the paint, and drawing the Wiz big man into fouls.
“I was ready to do my job. My job is to set good screens. We have such good players as DeMar and Kyle who could use those screens and make my life much easier if I set a good screen. I’m gonna get open. Just doing my job,” said Valanciunas. “End of the game, start of the game, it doesn’t matter what time it is. I know what I need to do.”
Miles would go 2-for-7 from three-point-land, rolling for eight points, and providing reliable end-of-game defence.
Wright stepped up with expert ball-handling in the fourth, spelling Toronto’s two all-stars of that duty. The youngster also hit some very timely shots in the clutch after being trigger shy in Game 4.
“I couldn’t even tell you [why the hesitation in Game 4]. I was trying to be unselfish and make the extra pass,” said Wright. “I had people all over my twitter, my Instagram, my family. About 30 people were telling me that. I kind of felt bad. When I saw the film I was like ’that’s crazy.”
The Raptors finished the night with 11 three balls on 25 attempts. They were outrebounded 50-35, but they had just 10 turnovers this time. Washington had 18 turnovers, seven of them attributed to Wall.
“It was nothing they did to make me force those turnovers, just bad reads on my part,” said Wall.
Asked to rate the Wizards’ chances of coming back to Toronto for Game 7, Wall said, “I like our chances, we’re very confident.”
The two teams will tangle again on Friday night, as the Raps try to force elimination in the loud confines of Capital One Arena in Washington.