WASHINGTON – The playoffs, with their small sample sizes and with bad matchups sometimes outweighing overall advantages, can yield weird results. Sometimes, the team that wins a record 73 games in the regular season blows a 3-1 lead in The Finals. And assuming that the New Orleans Pelicans don’t blow a 3-0 lead in their series with the Portland Trail Blazers, this will be the 12th straight year in which a team with home-court advantage has lost in the first round.
Along those lines, the Washington Wizards trailed 2-0 entering Friday’s Game 3, even though their 18th-ranked bench had outplayed the No. 1 bench in the league. The Toronto Raptors were missing key reserve Fred VanVleet for all but three minutes of the first two games, but their bench still had the ability to withstand his absence if the other reserves had performed up to their standards.
They didn’t, but the Raptors had outscored the Wizards 134-95 in 46 minutes with Toronto’s two All-Stars (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) and Washington’s two All-Stars (John Wall and Bradley Beal) all on the floor. And that was the difference.
The Wizards, given their talent, are the most dangerous 8 seed the Eastern Conference has had since the last 1-8 upset (2012, when the No. 1 seed Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose in Game 1). But while their reserves, led by Mike Scott, stepped up in Toronto, their starters hadn’t done their share.
The Wizards, however, finally put it all together on Friday. And it started with Wall and Beal, who combined for 56 points on 22-for-42 shooting in a 122-103 victory to make sure that this series will be heading back to Toronto for a Game 5. Wall added 14 assists and the pair accounted for seven of the Wizards’ 10 steals as they slowed down the Toronto offense for the first time in the series.
It looked like more of the same at the start, with the Toronto starters building a nine-point lead in the first quarter. But the Washington bench, along with Beal, got the lead back by the end of the period. Then Wall registered 13 points and six assists in a 39-point second quarter.
Leading 69-61 at the break, Washington held what had been the postseason’s most efficient offense to just 42 points over the final 24 minutes. The Wizards switched more often and played pick-and-rolls more conservatively in Game 3, allowing defenders not involved in the action to stay at home on Toronto’s shooters and close passing lanes.
DeRozan and Lowry were held somewhat in check and the Wizards outscored the Raptors by four points with all four All-Star guards on the floor. The Washington bench continued to play well, with Kelly Oubre Jr. providing some support to Mike Scott, who now has the best plus-minus (plus-33) in the series.
The improvement of the bench didn’t matter in the first two games. But it held up on Friday, in part because Beal scored as many points (28) as he did in the first two games combined.
“Brad came out and was looking to go towards the basket and not just letting them hold him and going along with it,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “He didn’t want to dance with his opponent, he wanted to get away from them. That was a critical part of his success.”
With Wall playing downhill most of the night, Game 3 was more about how good the Wizards can be than how disappointing the Wizards have been.
“It starts with us,” Beal said.
“You see the results,” Kelly Oubre Jr. added. “When those guys are at the top of their game, they’re unstoppable. So it’s their job to lock in and take the next step of being great and bringing out that same fire every game.”
The “every game” thing is the issue. The Wizards have been frustratingly inconsistent all season. Good wins have often followed by inexplicable losses. While the Raptors were Team TCB (takin’ care of business) this season, going 35-2 against the 12 teams that finished with losing records, the Wizards were just 20-15 against that same group.
On the other hand, the Wizards were 7-5 against the top three teams in the East and were one of two East teams (the Raptors were the other) to beat the Houston Rockets with both Chris Paul and James Harden in the lineup. The ceiling is high, but times when the Wizards reached it have been fleeting.
On Friday, the Wizards played like the team they were projected to be when this season started and not the team that finished a disappointing eighth in the East. But nobody can know what’s to come in Game 4 on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, TNT).
“When you’re in the playoffs, you can’t rest on the last game,” Brooks said. “It’s always about playing better the next game. We can’t lose our edge.”
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