The Toronto Raptors won a franchise-record 59 games and earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season, in part, because they had the deepest, most versatile and flat-out best bench in the NBA. Entering the postseason, though, there was plenty of skepticism as to whether sticking with a full rotation would really benefit Dwane Casey’s club, since opponents shorten their benches and play their best players. Would the Raptors’ second unit still be able to make a difference playing against the other team’s best guys?
Well, so far, so good. Because the “Bench Broskis” just did a lot of the heavy lifting in eliminating the Washington Wizards.
Kyle Lowry scored 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and got plenty of two-way support from the peerless reserve corps of Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Jakob Poeltl and the returning Fred VanVleet as the Raptors hit the gas in the final frame, leaving the Wizards in the dust in a 102-92 win in Game 6 at Capital One Arena on Friday night. The Raptors won the best-of-seven series four games to two, ending the Wizards’ scattershot season, punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference semifinals … and erasing an ignominious bit of franchise history from the record books with their second-half surge:
The Raptors are 0-23 all-time when trailing at halftime on the road in the playoffs.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2018
Make that 1-23.
Asked during an on-court postgame interview what his favorite part of the win was, Lowry didn’t hesitate.
“Our bench,” Lowry said, a smile playing across his face. “Our bench is always my favorite part. I love those guys. I love those guys to death, honestly. Delon. Freddie comes back in with some juice. Pascal guarding 17 people. Jak, you know, C.J. — those guys are great.”
Bradley Beal led the way with 32 points on 10-for-22 shooting, including a 6-for-10 mark from 3-point range, for the Wizards, who looked eager to extend their season when they burst out of the gates on a 15-4 lead and led by 10 after the opening quarter. They weathered several Raptor runs, too, ripping off nine straight after Toronto drew within one midway through the second quarter and getting a last-second tip-in by reserve wing Tomas Satoransky to end the third quarter on a high note and enter the fourth quarter with a five-point lead at 78-73.
And then came the fourth quarter, and with VanVleet back in the fold after missing all but two minutes of the first five games of the series with a right shoulder injury, Casey decided to do what he had done all year: rely on the bench lineup that had blown opponents’ doors off by a whopping 17.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season to give his team a lift late.
With Siakam wreaking defensive havoc, Poeltl hoovering rebounds, Wright filling every gap, Miles making a big three, VanVleet running the show, the Raptors’ bench outscored a Beal- and John Wall-led Wizards lineup 15-7 over the first five minutes and 45 seconds of the frame. They turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead through hustle, defensive intensity, aggression, playmaking precision and the kind of chemistry built during a season spent smacking opponents around together.
The Wizards were on the ropes, and starting to look gassed. Beal had already played 37 minutes, Wall 34 and center Marcin Gortat 29, as Washington leaned more heavily on its top guns with Otto Porter sidelined by a procedure to correct a blood flow issue brought on by a bone bruise in his left leg. So Casey went for the kill, turning back not only to Lowry, but also to center Jonas Valanciunas.
Casey has long resisted playing the Lithuanian big man late in contests, fearing his lack of lateral quickness would get exploited on the defensive end. But after Valanciunas came up big and dominated the glass in his first fourth-quarter action of the series in Game 5, Casey went back to him on Friday, showing trust in his starting center as Toronto looked to slam the door. Valanciunas instantly rewarded his faith, getting to the rim for a layup to extend the lead to five; he’d finish with 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in 31 minutes.
From there, Lowry took over, attacking the paint against the fading Wizards defense for good look after good look: a short floater, a driving layup, a pair of free throws, another layup through traffic.
The All-Star point guard — who had bristled a bit early in the season at the “culture reset” aimed at diversifying and upgrading the Raptors’ attack for the playoffs in part by taking the ball out of his hands more often and limiting his minutes — seized control of this game with both hands. He looked fresher by several orders of magnitude than Washington’s guards as he pushed the lead out of the Wizards’ reach, and pushed Toronto to the second round on the strength of an emphatic 29-14 closeout quarter.
“We’re just excited,” said Lowry, who shot 9-for-15 from the floor (3-for-7 from deep) and added six rebounds, six assists and a steal in 31 1/2 excellent minutes. “But we’re not satisfied. This is another step in our journey. We’re happy right now, but we’ll be able to focus on the next task at hand.”
It’s a journey that began with heartbreak at the hands of LeBron James in consecutive postseasons, spurring the fundamental reordering of their offensive principles and approach. It continued through a beautiful regular season marred by some late-year uncertainty, and has now landed the Raptors — through some minor turbulence — right where they wanted to be: preparing to host a second-round playoff series with a full squad fresh off a proof-of-concept finishing kick suggesting that, yes, having an awesome bench capable of spelling your All-Star guards can be a pretty cool thing come playoff time.
The next step: taking on the winners of the matchup between the No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers and No. 5 Indiana Pacers, set to be decided in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday. No matter who they face — DeMar DeRozan insists he doesn’t care at all — they’ll be ready. They believe that this year’s different, and that it can be their year, and that anybody who thinks otherwise can come up to Canada, knock on their door and try to prove otherwise. They might not like what they find, though.
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