WASHINGTON—Midway through the third quarter of Friday night’s do-or-die playoff game, a familiar but previously unheeded chant filled Capital One Arena.
“Dee-fense,” implored the 20,000 fans who hadn’t seen much of that championship-requisite quality out of either the Washington Wizards or the top-seeded Toronto Raptors through 2½ games to that point.
You couldn’t argue that the request was lost in translation, even though the first two games of the series had been played on Canadian soil. (Torontonians speak fluent English.) And it’s hard to heap call a squad that allowed 103 points stingy.
Still, on their best offensive night of the past week, it was a rediscovered passion on the defensive end (for a quarter, at least) that allowed the Wizards to romp to a 122–103 victory that made the series a bit more interesting.
“Much better than the past two games,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said of the defensive effort. “We have to play defense. If we want to win, we have to defend.”
Give Marcin Gortat primary credit. On consecutive third-quarter possessions, with his team clinging to a 79–71 lead, the Wizards’ center challenged Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan on a drive, forcing a miss from the high-scoring guard, and took a charge from Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas.
His teammates seemed to get the hint. After allowing Toronto to shoot 52 percent in the first half (54 percent from 3-point range), the Wizards clamped down (a bit) in the second half.
That third quarter turned out to be the difference in the game, as the Raptors made just 7 of 19 shots and were outscored 32-21. Washington held Toronto to 42 second-half points, two fewer than the Raptors scored in the first quarter of Game 2.
These Wizards will never be confused with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early ’90s. They ranked in the middle of the NBA pack in points allowed (106.0 per game) and opponents’ field goal percentage (46.2) during the regular season. And the Raptors averaged 122 points per game in winning the series’ first two games, shooting over 50 percent in each contest.
To be fair, Toronto is no defensive juggernaut, either. The Wizards topped 100 points in both games in Canada. And on Friday they gave a clinic on just how good they can be when they’re clicking, reaching 101 by the end of the third quarter.
John Wall and Bradley Beal (28 points each) were virtually unstoppable on one of their rare nights in sync. Wall also added 14 assists, and for the first time all series, Washington’s backcourt duo outplayed Toronto’s DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
“It was me and Brad taking on the challenge of taking on those guys,” Wall said.
Added Lowry: “Tonight, they were very aggressive. They changed up their pick and roll coverage.”
Gortat, who shaved off his trademark mohawk before the game—“I’m glad he got an age-appropriate haircut,” Brooks quipped—showed how effective he can be running the screen and roll with Wall. And reserves Ty Lawson (signed last week after playing most of the season in China) and Mike Scott provided offensive spark off the bench. After Scott used a crossover dribble to force a defender to stagger and drilled a foul-line jumper, Wall did a happy dance.
That was part of a big night for the Wizards’ much-maligned bench, which actually propelled them into the lead for good with a 12–0 spurt late in the first quarter, sparked by Lawson and Kelly Oubre Jr.
But that kind of offensive pace is unsustainable in the playoffs, especially against a No. 1 seed (even an equally defensive-challenged team). The Wizards will need to win at least once in Toronto to pull the upset, and that will require more than a half’s worth of defensive effort.
“We defended the 3-point line about as well as we could have, and they still made 12 3s,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to defend every possession. It’s simple: you’ve got to play hard every possession.“