WASHINGTON—The NBA insists its game be conducted five men to a side, but basketball is a fluid sport that can be played one on one, four on four or in any other combination.
So while the Washington Wizards’ first-round playoff series with Toronto was billed as a battle of heralded backcourts, it’s actually been the other guys on the floor for each team that have made the difference. Through four games, John Wall and Bradley Beal have effectively canceled out the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, often making it a three-on-three battle.
Watching Beal foul out with 4:58 remaining in a tie game that they needed to win probably would have deflated previous Wizards teams. This time, though, a one-for-all effort netted them a series-tying 106–98 Game 4 victory—and a huge confidence boost.
“We had to play through adversity,” said forward Otto Porter, one of many heroes on the night. “Down the stretch, we didn’t panic. You can see the growth in our team.”
Let’s be honest. The Wizards needed all 31 of Beal’s points to hang with the Raptors for 3 ½ quarters. And Wall scored 10 of Washington’s final 14 points after Beal was disqualified on a loose-ball whistle that was questionable at best.
But the Wizards would be headed north facing elimination in Wednesday’s Game 5 if not for an all-for-one effort without their leading scorer.
“When Bradley got the foul,” coach Scott Brooks said. “everybody stepped up, manned up and played a very defensive-minded last five minutes … I thought everybody chipped in.”
It started with Porter, whom some Wizards fans thought might have defected to Canada, so little impact did he have through the series’ first 3½ games. He emerged from halftime with one point, but scored eight (including two 3-pointers) in the first 3:22 of the third quarter to help Washington rally from a 51–40 halftime deficit.
Center Marcin Gortat played his usual efficient game, scoring 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting. His biggest contribution, though, may have come on defense.
Midway through the fourth period, the 6-foot-11 Gortat got caught on a pick-and-roll switch and found himself guarding Lowry, who’s 10 inches shorter and infinitely quicker. The Raptors spread the court to allow Lowry to drive past Gortat, but the Wizards’ center twice held his ground and forced Lowry to miss a contested 3-point attempt, sparking an 8–0 Washington run that tied the game.
Then, after Beal fouled out, forward Markieff Morris enjoyed arguably his best minute of the season. First, his hustle forced a Toronto turnover. Then he converted a lob pass from Wall into a layup for a 96–94 lead, and he followed by blocking DeRozan’s layup attempt.
Oubre, who replaced Beal after he was disqualified, retrieved the ball and made one of two foul shots. He also played commendable defense—something he’s not exactly known for—to help prevent a Toronto rally.
If you believe Gortat, there were no emotional speeches after Beal was forced to the bench.
“I didn’t even know he had fouled out,” Gortat said with a straight face. “I knew he was [angry] that he’d been called for a foul, but on the next possession, I was looking to screen for Brad, and he wasn’t there. I said, ‘Where the hell is he?’
“But Kelly stepped in and did OK. The next guy has to step in and play.”
That’s been a theme for the Wizards, who survived for 36 games without Wall late in the season. They once had the East’s third-best record, but his absence knocked them down to the final playoff seed after a 3-7 finish to the season. It did, though, give players like Oubre and Tomas Satoransky a chance to contribute.
Now, everyone is healthy, and except for a terrible stretch early in Game 2, the Wizards have given the top-seeded Raptors all they can handle so far.
“We’re not talking about chopped liver,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “Washington is not your typical 8 seed.”
No, there’s enough talent to make Washington just the sixth No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 since the NBA went to a 16-team format in 1984. The Wizards will have to sustain Sunday’s effort and win at least once on the road. But this maddening team that seems to play to the level of its competition certainly seems to have the Raptors’ full attention.
“We have a lot of great talent on this team,” Oubre said. “At any given moment, anybody can go off and have a career game, a breakout game.”