WASHINGTON — Once he got that skipping, cursing, jersey-untucking, mouthpiece-tossing (twice) tantrum out of his system and accepted the reality that his night was over with six fouls, Bradley Beal gathered his teammates in the huddle with a simple message: “We’re not losing. Regardless.”
Beal was having one of those performances that have become the norm for him in the postseason, a 31-point effort that rallied his team back from a 14-point deficit to give the unlikeliest of eighth seeds a chance to even the series with the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. But for the final five minutes, the Washington Wizards weren’t going to have that sweet stroke from beyond the 3-point arc or that wicked step-back jumper, and John Wall wasn’t going to have his All-Star partner. After Beal addressed the team, Wall told Yahoo Sports, “I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘Damn right, we’re going to win.’ ”
For those unaware of how the Wizards went from being a team that entered the season expecting to become an Eastern Conference power only to bottom out from injuries and funky chemistry, understand that they only know how to operate through anger and adversity. Losing Beal meant that the challenge was going to be that much steeper, the reward that much greater. So, the Wizards capturing a 106-98 win in Game 4 Sunday to even their series with Toronto at 2-2 was only stunning if you haven’t been watching. “It’s how we live,” Markieff Morris said afterward. “It’s how it has to be.”
The Raptors, on the other hand, have mostly had a charmed existence this season. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — the NBA’s best buddy-cop movie going — accepted a philosophy change and were rewarded for their faith with a team that put the franchise in its best position to contend for a championship. General manager Masai Ujiri instituted an internal culture change; assembled a deep, defensive-minded roster with youthful legs; and coach Dwane Casey installed a modern, ball-moving, 3-point-embracing offense.
Through the first two games of this series, the Raptors couldn’t have asked for the shift in personnel and strategy to work out any better. Drake was heckling Wall and Kelly Oubre from his courtside seat and talking smack on Instagram. Toronto came to Washington feeling like this could be the year but leave with the understanding that it was probably due for a struggle. The advantages the Raptors had most of the season in regard to depth haven’t emerged, especially with a shoulder injury to backup guard Fred VanVleet disrupting Casey’s preferred lineups. And, when the Wizards withstood Toronto’s first-half ambush and rallied back Sunday, DeRozan was given the chance to show that he still had trust in the system that got the Raptors this far. Admittedly, DeRozan found himself reverting to the hero ball that led to the system adjustments.
After four games, the series isn’t all that feels even. Casey has repeatedly said the Wizards “aren’t your typical eighth seed” because the separation in talent between the teams isn’t particularly vast. You might have to press your fingers together and slide a stick through to find the difference. The Wizards earned their position because they were unfocused and undisciplined far too often, and that’s including the half of the season they had Wall in uniform. Without Wall, they ran off some wins and found a way for everybody to eat, mostly out of desperation.
“We’re not an eight-seed team, me missing 40-something games and still making the playoffs. Nobody would’ve thought we were going to make it. Everybody called us out. But that’s a testament to all of the other guys on the team, just going out there and competing,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “We feel like we can go out there and challenge anybody — eight seed or whatever seed. I think the Raptors really respect that. This feels like a [expletive] 1-3, 1-4 matchup. This feels like this should be the second round or the Eastern Conference finals, but it is what it is.”
The Raptors were the best team in the East through the regular season, earning the respect of being the favorite, especially with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers looking more vulnerable than in previous years. But past postseason shortcomings — including a sweep in 2015 at the hands of a Wizards team that features many of the same characters — have also opened them up to a reasonable doubt.
DeRozan and Lowry know the Raptors can’t complete this feel-good story without some next-level games on the stage where lasting legacies are established. They have to be great, not just very good, to have a breakthrough — for themselves and for their long-overlooked franchise. And right now, they have to inspire their teammates and be better than the opposing All-Star backcourt that is staring them down without any fear. Raised expectations have removed the excuses, but not necessarily the anxiety.
“The pressure is on them,” Otto Porter said.
Washington has been a mess but is the team that thrives when it is cornered, that is fueled by emotion and doubt. Sunday was only the latest example, with the Wizards defiantly overcoming a double-digit lead early and losing Beal late to a controversial foul call. Starting with a lob to Morris and continuing through some daring mid-range buckets, Wall basically sent a five-minute thank you to the visibly upset Beal for keeping the Wizards afloat in his absence during the regular season; for giving this team a chance to pull off what would amount to — based on what this series has revealed — a mild upset.
How the Raptors respond over the next three games will determine if this grand experiment was a success — or if the cultural reset merely amounted to rearranging some furniture. This is the true test. Actually, it’s the first test, because more are on the way should they survive.
“You never want to be in this situation, but it’s nothing new for us,” DeRozan said. “We understand the magnitude and importance of everything in the moment. As a competitor, we thrive in moments like this. We understand our opportunity to go back home. We’ve been great all year.” We understand that we need to be better at it. It’s going to be fun.”
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