TORONTO -- The most commonly used word for the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors has been 'reset'. This season officially started at the year-end press conference after the second-round sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, general manager Masai Ujiri talked about a culture reset, something that has played out over the course of a regular season that ended with a franchise-record 59 wins, the No. 1 seed in the East, and the Raptors as the only NBA team to finish top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The main question heading into the playoffs was whether these Raptors had done enough to earn another reset: one of the expectations of the team’s ceiling in the postseason. After their Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday - remarkably, the first Game 1 home win in franchise history - the Raptors appear ready to raise that ceiling and assume their role of a legitimate contender in the East.
Only five times in NBA history have a No. 8 seed won a first-round series, which makes it absurd the Raptors had to spend the two days leading up to Saturday answering questions about their own playoff history. There were questions about their past sweep to the Wizards. “How many years ago has that been?” Casey asked Thursday. Three, to be exact, and only DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas remain from that team.
The Raptors were also asked to explain their streak of four consecutive home Game 1 losses. “I don’t know,” DeRozan said, visibly annoyed. “I only think about it when y’all bring it up.” The Raptors spent the entire season proving they finally had the look of a legitimate contender, and still, they were asked to prove themselves in Game 1. “We won 59 games,” DeRozan said. “If that’s not the ultimate understanding of what got us here wasn’t a fluke, it really worked.”
Everything resets in the postseason, and no team knows that better than the Raptors, whose regular-season success has been wiped away with troubling performances to start the playoffs in four straight years. There’s a reason Lowry compared this year's opener to a Game 7.
You could see how Saturday’s game could have turned into another devastating opening loss. John Wall was the best player on the floor for most of the evening. The Raptors turned the ball over 17 times. They shot 50 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three in the first half, and still trailed by four points. After an early questionable call, the sold-out crowd broke into a “refs, you suck” chant, a Raptors Game 1 playoff tradition like no other.
Past Raptors teams might have been fazed by a poor shooting half from Lowry and DeRozan, some debatable calls that made them lose their poise momentarily in the first half, or the water leak from the ceiling of the Air Canada Centre that briefly delayed the start of Saturday’s game (one writer joked he always knew the Raptors didn’t have much of a ceiling).
But none of it mattered in this Game 1.
The Raptors were the better team, and more importantly, they played the same style that made them successful all year. In the regular season, Toronto went from 30th in assists last year to sixth. On Saturday, they had 26 assists on 41 field goals.
DeRozan has made himself a much more valuable player on the floor even when he hasn’t shot well. After averaging a career-high 5.2 assists this season, he had six assists in Game 1 despite shooting 6-for-17. The best fourth-quarter defense shut down the Wizards early in the final period. The team that put an emphasis on three-pointers made 16 of them and outscored the Wizards by 24 points from beyond the arc. The best second unit in the league got 18 points from Delon Wright, and four huge threes from C.J. Miles.
Miles, who hasn’t been here for the Game 1 streak, understood the importance of winning. “I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Miles said. “I think the biggest thing is starting off on the right foot and protecting your home floor. It’s the first step in the journey.”
The Raptors realized a year ago they would never go anywhere meaningful if Lowry and DeRozan had to do all the heavy lifting in the postseason, and this team, the second-youngest in these playoffs, was built to not just succeed in the regular season but also finally find a blueprint for postseason success.
There were several scenarios depending on how Game 1 turned out. A loss, and the Raptors were facing two more off days of questions about a here-we-go-again situation. An uninspiring win would raise questions about whether the playoffs would validate any of the changes to the Raptors' playing style this year. Instead, the Raptors won the way they have all season, and for that, they’ve earned that reset of expectations.
“I think 82 games is a good sample size of who we are,” Casey said afterward.
As the clock ticked down in the final seconds, DeRozan dribbled the clock out and gently tossed the ball in the air at midcourt as the buzzer sounded, walking off as if it was just another win. “On home court, we’re supposed to win, and that’s our mindset,” he said.
The Raptors appear ready to assume the role they’ve spent all season earning: the best team in the Eastern Conference with their sights set on loftier goals than simply winning a game to open the playoffs. The next step? Turning this first-round series into a foregone conclusion.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)