The Toronto Raptors started the 2014-15 season with high hopes, and in the first 31 games of the year exceeded their own expectations, winning 24 of those contests. Because of this hot stretch, Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Raptors among the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors as title favorites.
Following the All-Star break, the team faltered and fell all the way to fourth in the Eastern Conference. Guard Kyle Lowry seems to have slipped the most since that time, which is a key reason coach Dwane Casey decided to give his veteran leader a few days off down the stretch.
It was that drop in production on Lowry’s part, and the team’s inability to recapture the defensive prowess it exhibited last season and at the start of this year that led the team to its first-round playoff matchup with the Washington Wizards.
Ironically enough, it was thought that Washington posed a more favorable matchup for the Raptors in the opening round, at least in comparison to the team’s other likely first-round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto did after all sweep the regular-season series with the Wizards 3-0, with one of those victories coming by 19 points. And yet, the Raptors find themselves down 2-0 in the playoffs and facing the task of having to win at least a pair of games in Washington if they hope to advance to the second round.
Advancing to the next round is something the Raptors franchise has only done once in 20 years. That was back in 2001, when Vince Carter missed a baseline jump shot at the buzzer against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7, knocking Toronto out. And if the Raps hope to advance this year, they would become just the fifth team in the last 12 years to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a series. Doing so will be a tough hill for Toronto to climb no doubt, but they do have a shot and the task at hand isn’t totally impossible.
If the Raptors do indeed get their groove back, it’s going to have to start with an increased commitment to defense for a full four quarters. In Game 2, the Dinos got out to a quick 12-2 lead and had an absolutely deafening crowd on their side. By the start of the fourth quarter, Washington was flirting with a 25-point lead on the strength of dominating play from the likes of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Paul Pierce, among others. The swing in momentum was mostly a result of foul trouble that saw Lowry on the bench prematurely, a 37-point outburst by the Wizards in the third quarter, and a ton of missed free throws by the Raptors that seemed to crush every attempt the team made at making a run in the second half.
Although those mistakes have cost the Raptors home-court advantage, it may not be a bad thing. Maybe, just maybe, Toronto will find playing at the Verizon Center with nothing to lose a bit of a relief, because as much as Canada has truly rallied around the team over the last two springs, with the rallying cries of thousands of fans screaming “We The North” comes a lot of pressure. A trip to Washington certainly takes that pressure off, especially now that the team is a decided underdog in the series.
That doesn’t mean though that the Raps don’t have a lot of work ahead of them. They’ll need to do a better job of controlling Wall and Beal, and need to ensure they don’t let Pierce get further into their heads. They’ll also need to do what Washington did so well in Toronto, which is get the crowd out of the game.
No question it’s a tall order (especially with Lowry’s health in question), but if the Raptors hope to still be playing basketball by the end of next week, they’re going to have to capture some magic. Whether they do or not, the remaining games in the series offer perhaps more intrigue and drama than most other first-round series. Only time will tell if that drama will continue on long enough to bring the series back to Toronto.