Key Legislature: Wizards 125 vs Raptors 94 — D.C. Extinction Event Ends Toronto’s Season | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 125 vs Raptors 94 — D.C. Extinction Event Ends Toronto’s Season

By
Updated: April 27, 2015

Truth About It.net’s Key Legislature: a quick run-down and the game’s defining moment(s)
for Washington Wizards first-round playoff contest No. 4 versus the Toronto Raptors in D.C.
via Conor Dirks (@ConorDDirks) from the Verizon Center.

DC Council Key Legislature

by Conor Dirks.

With just under four minutes left in the first quarter, the Wizards already had a lead they’d never renounce. Through a combination of free throws, layups, a 3-pointer by Bradley Beal, and even an assuaging midrange make by Nene, Washington piled on, jumping ahead 22-14. Instead of letting the dust settle, the Wizards kept drilling.

The time-lapse fossilization of Toronto’s shell of a team began in earnest with 3:45 remaining in the opening quarter, as John Wall found Beal open behind the arc for the second time. At that point, the Beal 3-pointers were Wall’s only true assists (his four free throw assists were a game-high, and the only other Wizard with a free throw assist was Paul Pierce, who had just one).

“John’s gonna find ya,” summarized Randy Wittman, sitting proud at the postgame podium.

Wall had a hand in the next four scoring plays as well, and they came in rapid succession. Wall found Gortat for a beautiful, nigh-trademark layup released about an inch from the cup. Eighteen seconds later he found Pierce where the Hall of Famer has been camping all series: another 3-pointer for the master troll. At that point, the score was 30-18. Then Wall drove at a normally voyeuristic Greivis Vasquez, drawing a foul, and shooting two of Washington’s incredible 34 free throw attempts. He made them both. Finally, with 1:33 remaining in the first quarter, Wall beat another weak Toronto coverage, finding Gortat for a reverse layup.

Glancing down at the stat sheet that accompanies him to his conversations with the press, Wittman explained that if someone didn’t watch, they may think that Wall didn’t have a big game. Only five field goal attempts, only 14 points, only 10 assists (compared to a playoff-high 12.5 assist average). “But he had his hand in everything,” Wittman stated, and that was true enough. During the four-game sweep, the Wizards out-passed the Raptors by 219. In Game 4, the margin was 50. And despite not playing in the fourth quarter, Wall had more passes than any player on either team.

Wall is the head of the defensive viper, the vanguard of Washington’s taut scheme. All series, he and Beal have met Toronto guards halfway between midcourt and the 3-point line, pressuring the ball out of their hands long before plays had a chance to develop. That pressure devastated the Raptors, who rely almost exclusively on isolation possessions from Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Greivis Vasquez, and Lou Williams to carry their scoring load.

Forced inside, the Raptors didn’t find much respite. Gortat was dominant in Game 4, and players only shot 44.4 percent at the rim against him. Over and over, Gortat out-positioned Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, put his hands straight up in the air, and let the Raptors squirm under his shadow. Gortat was big enough to neutralize Johnson and far too agile for a lumbering Valanciunas.

Just as important as Gortat’s defense, though, was his inspired offense. At 74.4 percent, Gortat leads all players in the playoffs in field goal percentage. And you could see why in Game 4, as Gortat (who is one of the best finishers at the rim in the Association) identified openings among the throng of bodies down low on his way to an 8-of-9 shooting night, including a 6-for-6 performance on contested shots.

During the second half of the season, Gortat often seemed artificially constricted, confusingly bound by a set of invisible irons in a Wizards offense that never quite escaped its padded cell. The pick-and-roll brilliance that has been on display during the Raptors series was rarely used, and a frustrated Gortat seemed ready to boil over (after a game late in the season, he attributed his big performance to him finally getting the ball). So, what changed? According to Gortat, his liberator was, improbably, Drew Gooden:

“[Gooden] was the guy swinging the ball a lot from side to side, going to set a screen, and because of his skills, because of his ability to stretch the floor for us, he creates a lot of space for me on the roll…”

Toronto is not a strong defensive team, but Gortat’s right. Gooden’s presence (or alternatively, Pierce sliding to the 4) opens up the middle of the court in a way that may even be more important than the (drastic) increase in 3-pointers between the regular season and the playoffs. It’s why Kris Humphries didn’t play until garbage time despite being a better overall player than Gooden at this point in their careers. If the Wizards are going to keep up the scoring pace through the utilization of a “stretch” big (and they really should), they can’t afford to give minutes at the 4 to both Nene and Humphries.

In 2015, the Raptors lost a playoff series in part due to their inability to adjust to Drew Gooden. Copy that? Gooden (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) hit more 3s in Game 4 alone than he totaled in six different full seasons during his long career. In other words, although Gooden has flirted with being a “stretch” big before, he’s never stretched this often: even his 59 regular season attempts in 2014-15 were a career-high, and that was in very limited minutes.

Before calling himself the “weakest link” with his affable speak-first, smile-second candor, Gortat ticked through what it’s like to be the Washington Wizards center in 2015. “Personally, for me, it is huge to play with two studs like Brad (Beal) and John (Wall). These guys create a lot of space for me,” he said. “We have Otto (Porter) stepping in right now, big time. We are playing with a legend Paul Pierce. We are playing the big Brazilian gladiator.” The Polish Machine was in a fine mood.

The change in offensive philosophy has been almost inconceivable. The team that previously scraped by on offense with a glut of midrange jumpers and a dearth of 3-point shots, and blamed a shooting-deficient roster for a style of play that favored shots from 15-to-19 feet rather than shots from behind the arc is suddenly jacking up 24.3 3-pointers per game (compared to 16.8 in the regular season). The Wizards are even running a fair share of plays designed to free up 3-point shooters like Beal behind the line. Familiar curl plays that were previously designed to end with an open shot from midrange have been repurposed farther from the basket. The Wizards hit a playoff franchise record 15 of their 26 3-point attempts, 22 of which were uncontested.

And those midrange jumpers? They’re down, but not out. The Wizards averaged 17.2 attempts from 15-to-19 feet during the regular season. In the playoffs, that number is down to a healthy 12.8. The Wizards do not have to forsake all midrange comfort to improve their offense. It’s always been about balance, even if the drumbeats for efficiency, deafening as they became over three years of advocacy, often made the aspirational shift seem more radical than it was.

But, as Gortat said after the game, “this is the recipe.”

Of course, Washington’s fresh-out-of-puberty offense may not be smoking a cigar on the roof of a Taoist temple on the beginning of the road to greater understanding were it not for the Raptors’ generous defense.

Repeatedly using a turn of the phrase that I thought was reserved for asking someone to put their member back behind their zipper, Raptors coach Dwane Casey reflected on the series, and the season as a whole: “It was hard for me, as a coach, to get the horse back in the barn defensively.” It’s true. During the regular season, the Raptors were Washington’s polar opposite. Good offense, awful defense, despite Casey’s reputation as a defensive-minded administrator. In Game 4, the Raptors were a caricature of regular-season NBA defense—swiping instead of bodying, missing rotations, losing players in the corner.

“We got caught up in playing that style of play, which was semi-successful, except when you get to this level,” Casey continued. “I do know that you have to play defense at this level. To compete for a championship, you have to be a defensive-minded team. And we lost that.”

Many writers, including myself, will focus on small ball and the Darwinism of playoff offense, but as Casey alluded to, in the playoffs, defense is just as, if not more, important. Last season’s San Antonio Spurs, winners of the NBA championship, were second among playoff teams in defensive efficiency in the 2013-14 playoffs, behind only the Washington Wizards. Of course, they were also first in offensive efficiency. This season, after four games, it’s the Wizards atop the offensive efficiency pyramid, with a playoff-high 112.5 OffRtg.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, fans were streaming out of the Verizon Center, having had their fill of Washington’s new recipe, as the Wizards coasted to a 125-94 victory with their starters seated comfortably on the bench. It was an unfamiliar feeling. Stranger still will be waiting for Atlanta and Brooklyn to finish what has, to this point, been a more competitive series than the one between Washington and Toronto. Hopefully, with a more challenging road ahead, the Wizards aren’t done cooking.

 

Conor Dirks on EmailConor Dirks on FacebookConor Dirks on GoogleConor Dirks on InstagramConor Dirks on LinkedinConor Dirks on Twitter
Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.