Tuesday NBA Playoffs Takeaways: Raptors Exorcising Demons of Postseasons Past
Top-seeded NBA playoff teams aren't supposed to find validation in taking ownership of their matchup with would-be eighth-place steppingstones.
The Toronto Raptors shouldn't care.
That's the beautified ugliness of the Eastern Conference's postseason bracket: It seems anyone can beat anyone. Even the Cleveland Cavaliers look like a potential (albeit unlikely) opening-round appetizer.
On the heels of a 130-119 bludgeoning Tuesday night, the Raptors should thus bask in their 2-0 series chokehold over the Washington Wizards. They aren't facing a typical, last-team-in pushover. Not on paper. The Raptors are merely making the Wizards fold like one.
Defending home court is only part of the battle. In essence, Toronto has done what it was supposed to do. Carrying this momentum into hostile territory for Game 3 would send a more meaningful message.
At the same time, this series feels over. And the remade Raptors appear to be playoff-proof, with their failures in years past no more than an anecdotal afterthought from a pattern they've officially broken.
Past Failures Aside, Raptors Can't Be Ignored Out East
The moment was surreal.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was giving his between-quarter interview just before the final frame. Washington had cut the lead to 10 in the third while Toronto went 0-for-7 from deep after canning 11-of-22 long-range attempts in the first half. NBA TV's Jared Greenberg asked Casey if his team was relying too heavily on the three-ball.
"No," he said. "That's who we are."
Imagine that. The Raptors, wed together with volume three-point shooting, for better or worse, in a playoff game.
Casey's answer—much like the Toronto's willingness to fire away—shouldn't come as a surprise. These Raptors are different from any other iteration we've seen.
The ball moves quicker. "Push the pace" is not a foreign phrase. Players move off the ball. Casey empties the bench without reluctance. He tweaks rotations and lineups based on matchup and momentum and general feel. And, yes, the offense launches more treys. Toronto placed fourth in three-point-attempt rate during the regular season, up from 20th in 2016-17.
And yet, something about seeing this overhauled identity in action during the playoffs is disarming. It always felt like the Raptors might revert to their old ways. They didn't knock down triples at a particularly high clip (35.8 percent; 18th leaguewide). What would they do when faced with conflict? When things weren't going their way?
In the third quarter of Game 2 specifically, the Raptors flirted with reversion. But they looked comfortable, not lost. They reimplemented parts of their game plan in the fourth. It doesn't matter that they drilled only one three in the second half before entering garbage time. They kept attacking after the Wizards' best counters and seldom settled.
DeMar DeRozan was sensational, pumping in 37 points while tying a career-playoff high in made triples with three. Kyle Lowry's shot was off (3-of-10), but his struggles didn't infect the rest of his game. He dished out 12 assists and spent time chasing around Bradley Beal and John Wall on defense.
More so than anything else, this is what's most different about these Raptors. They have the tools and identity to navigate their imperfections. Delon Wright came through defensively with Fred VanVleet unable to log even four minutes. Jonas Valanciunas guarded well enough in the early going to keep himself on the floor against Washington's smaller lineups. CJ Miles' sweet shooting offset Lowry's cold streak.
Again: Holding serve at home is the expectation for a No. 1 seed. Save the confetti. Holster breakdowns of how the Raptors stack up with the Cavaliers or Indiana Pacers in Round 2. They have work to do. But this relative reticence is the entire point.
Toronto is officially, unequivocally, inarguably ready to be treated like any other No. 1 seed.
Washington Looks D-O-N-E
Washington never had a chance in its Game 2 letdown against Toronto. Not really.
John Wall perked up in the second half, going for 22 points and six assists on 7-of-12 shooting. He attacked switches in the half-court, showcased unhinged speed off the dribble and went after the ball on defense. Some quality hooping from him, Ty Lawson and Mike Scott brought Washington back within striking distance.
Artificial striking distance, that is.
The Wizards will be lucky to win a game, let alone the series, with Bradley Beal ghosting on them. He's averaging 14 points on 39.3 percent shooting, including a 27.3 percent clip from downtown, through the first two games. Washington is being outpaced by 30.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court—the worst differential on the team.
Early foul trouble didn't help the Wizards on Tuesday. Both Beal and Wall picked up two personals in the first quarter. But head coach Scott Brooks' rotation has been wonky independent of involuntary circumstances.
Turning to Markieff Morris and Scott at the 4 and 5, respectively, has yet to force the Raptors' hands. They've been content to stay big for most of those minutes. Lawson and Scott both saw more time than Otto Porter in Game 2, even though Porter wasn't in foul trouble. Marcin Gortat has forgotten how to finish around the rim. The starting lineup has been outscored by 19 points through 26 minutes.
Forget about the Wizards pulling off the upset. Right now, they're a living, breathing, imploding "This is fine" meme.
Jaylen Brown Is Learning the Ropes of Stardom
Kyrie Irving's injury is not a blessing in disguise for the Boston Celtics. Far from it. Long-term concerns are attached to his latest left knee injury, and the Celtics have no shot at making the NBA Finals without him.
His absence has, however, allowed for a trial-by-fire exploration of Jaylen Brown's ceiling.
And this just in: Brown is on track for stardom.
The 21-year-old—um, yeah, he's only 21—made offensive strides during the regular season, but there was never anything quite like his 30-point detonation in Boston's Game 2 shellacking of the Milwaukee Bucks.
It wasn't just that Brown dropped 30 points, the second-highest total in his career. It was how he did it.
He picked apart the Bucks' shapeshifting defensive coverages. When they went under screens, he showed zero hesitation while he jacked 12 threes. When they gave him a step, he seized it, powering his way to the rim.
With Jayson Tatum struggling (2-of-9) and Al Horford operating within his preferred wheelhouse, Brown became the Celtics' go-to option. (You too, Terry Rozier!) And the part suited him. He's even looked more comfortable pulling up this series, which is huge considering Marcus Morris has thus far been the lone non-Irving player who does.
One game is one game is one game. But Brown piled on 20 points in the opening tilt while unveiling an extra layer of playmaking potential.
Bake in his exhaustive work ethic on defense, and the Celtics may have what the Detroit Pistons were supposed to in Stanley Johnson and what the Miami Heat are still hoping they do in Justise Winslow: The next Jimmy Butler—or someone extremely close to him.
Milwaukee Also Looks D-O-N-E (?)
After their 120-106 letdown on Tuesday, the Bucks are trailing the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics 2-0. Just like we all predicted.
JK, jk, jk.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has lived up to his billing as a top-five star. He's averaging 32.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists on 63.2 percent shooting through two games. Khris Middleton is the best player in the NBA to never make an All-Star team (non-rookie-contract division). He's averaging 28.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists while canning an obscene 69.2 percent of his threes (9-of-13) for the series.
After them, the Bucks have almost nothing worth writing home about.
Eric Bledsoe has verged on unplayable. He should spend less time pretending not to know Terry Rozier and a lot more time remembering how to shoot. Jabari Parker is unplayable. Jason Terry is playing too much. Shabazz Muhammad is, apparently, about to become a thing. Tony Snell looks lost.
The defense is broken. The Bucks shot nearly 60 percent in Game 2 against a Celtics team missing its best scorer, and they still lost. Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been mostly unreal, yet the Bucks are a minus-five when both are in the game. That's impressively terrible.
Go look somewhere else for potential solutions. Other than "play more interested defense," we don't have anything. The Bucks shouldn't be this inconsistent. Their rotations, courtesy of interim head coach Joe Prunty, shouldn't be so unpredictable.
Their chances against a Boston squad down Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis shouldn't seem so irretrievably hopeless.
Game 3 is Friday in Milwaukee. Maybe the Bucks have something left to give that Antetokounmpo and Middleton haven't already shown. If not, they're done.
New Orleans Is So Much More Than Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis went for 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting, 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocks during the New Orleans Pelicans' 111-102 Game 2 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
And yet, he was not his team's best player Tuesday. Nor has he been the Pelicans' top dog for the series. Not on his own, anyway.
Jrue Holiday is playing him to a stalemate. He dropped a playoff career-high 33 points and nine assists on a ridiculous 14-of-24 clip in Game 2, and he has now held Damian Lillard to 0-of-8 shooting for the series as his primary defender, according to ESPN.
That doesn't make Holiday more valuable to the Pelicans. No one's daft enough to believe that. But he's been dominating, somewhat quietly, since before DeMarcus Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury. His defensive efforts are separating him more than anything else. He's consistently guarded positions 1 through 3 for most of this year, and he turned on his shot-blocking jets after the All-Star break.
Holiday is not alone in providing support. Playoff Rajon Rondo is shining brightly again. He nearly tallied a triple-double in Game 2 (16 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) and continues to be a respectable enough threat from behind the rainbow when left alone. He hit a dagger corner three to effectively put away the Blazers on Tuesday.
Nikola Mirotic is balling, too. Playing him beside Davis is a floor-spacing cheat code. He's even taken advantage of some Zach Collins switches in space and hustled his butt off at the other end. The Pelicans are outscoring the Blazers by 15.5 points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup—the best mark on the team.
Solomon Hill remains an offensive punchline, but he's having some nice defensive moments. His return has also spared E'Twaun Moore from some outsized assignments. Ian Clark is once again good for the random big-time hoop.
The Pelicans are more than Anthony Davis. This is neither a joke nor an overstatement. They've played the Blazers to a statistical deadlock in the time he's spent on the sidelines. That doesn't just matter.