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The Raptors’ Bench Mob Wasn’t Just a Regular-Season Fluke

Toronto’s young guns came to play, and that was the difference in Game 1 against the Wizards

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It took a back-and-forth affair, but the Raptors beat the Wizards 114-106 in Game 1. It’s Toronto’s first win in a playoff opener since 2001. Really. Here are three takeaways from the thrilling game.

This Is Not a 1-8 Series

A common refrain in college sports is that rivalry games between two schools with history require that you “throw out the records.” The phrase has become a mocked cliché that just means anything can happen, even when the two teams are not evenly matched. Wizards-Raptors, though, is going to force us to throw out not just history, but also the seedings attached to the two teams. The unexpected 4-0 Wizards sweep of the Raptors in 2015 has no bearing on this series, and the 1-8 matchup we’re ostensibly looking at isn’t what it seems because the gap in talent level is much smaller than those numbers indicate. The two teams engaged in a wire-to-wire battle for most of Saturday’s Game 1, with Toronto surging at the end to get a win, though it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine the opposite happening. Each game of this series can become a toss-up.

“[Washington is] a really good team,” Kyle Lowry said after the game. “They’re not a normal eight seed.” For three and a half quarters, the Wizards showed how high their ceiling could be when John Wall is in control. Wall had a double-double by halftime, and finished with 23 points and 15 assists, four steals, and two blocks. Markieff Morris dropped an efficient 22 points, and even Bradley Beal, who didn’t have a good game, poured in 19. Scott Brooks’s team unraveled in the final stretch of the fourth, Wall became erratic, Beal couldn’t buy a shot, and only Morris was still scoring.

Washington was undone by their ongoing weakness: their lack of support off the bench. But this was a game with 15 lead changes and seven ties; if Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., or Tomas Satoransky had a more notable performance, things could have swung the other way. Wall and Co. will make Toronto work for it. It’s too bad they couldn’t have ended up as the 7-seed and done this against a weaker Celtics team instead.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan Can Pick Their Spots

The Raptors took control of the game during two important junctures. One was when DeMar DeRozan came out in the third quarter on fire and scored 12 points after only having five in the whole first half. The other was when a fiery Lowry turned up the heat on defense, specifically on a play with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Wall was streaking down the court on a fastbreak and on his way to cutting the Raptors’ lead to six, maybe even five points.

Nope.

Lowry tracked Wall from half court and timed his jump perfectly, becoming a human wall in mid-air and deterring Wall’s drive-and-score attempt. It was a dagger defensive possession. After a quiet first half, Lowry and DeRozan picked their spots as far as their impact on the game, a luxury they have because of their supporting roster; DeRozan finished with 17 points, Lowry with only 11. They won’t be able to go the whole series without putting up numbers more in line with their season averages, but for one game, their modest production was all that was needed.

The Raptors’ Depth Is Their Trump Card

It’s a stat that would make Tom Thibodeau flush with disbelief: Nine Raptors players logged at least 10 minutes in a tight, competitive playoff game. (For reference, the Warriors played nine players in a blowout earlier in the day.) And they didn’t just take up filler minutes. Dwane Casey made sure he plugged the right guys at the right time, and the Bench Mob responded to the trust by outscoring the Wizards’ bench, 42-21.

Without the team’s patron saint, Fred VanVleet (who was out with a right shoulder injury), Delon Wright proved his own importance by filling the role perfectly. Wright had 18 points off the bench (more than both Lowry and DeRozan) and made three of his four 3s. C.J. Miles added four 3s of his own and 12 points, Pascal Siakam tallied nine points and five rebounds, and even Bebe Nogueira had a handful of impactful defensive possessions in crunch time. It was a clinic on how to leverage depth over a team that relies heavily on its two stars. Game 1 was a testament to all the time Casey and his staff have spent developing the young bench and letting them impact regular season games. So far, it’s translated seamlessly. Who says you have to shorten your rotation in the playoffs?