Laughs afterward were easy. Drew Gooden rarely stifles them and often provides them no matter the circumstance, so finding comedy after going up 3-0 on the Toronto Raptors was not a grinding pursuit.
Tie on, hands behind his back, camera lights shining off his bald head, Gooden explained the night’s success. Those at home saw the veteran talk about energy and rebounds, two pertinent things in the Washington Wizards’ 106-99 Game 3 victory that left only an aged peg leg for the Raptors to stand on. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
What TV viewers didn’t see was Gooden’s two bare legs beneath his suited upper body, both 33-year-old knees wrapped in ice, or Rasual Butler two lockers down cackling. Gooden clarified afterward this was an homage to Ron Burgundy of Anchorman fame.
There were yucks, and why not? This version of the Wizards, a team that appeared on a wayward ship for much of the second half of the season, is the first in the mediocre history of the organization to lead a playoff series 3-0. Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals is Sunday night at Verizon Center, a building that has become a stronghold for the team this year.
Consider Friday night’s result affirmation of a lesson learned since last season. After leading the Chicago Bulls 2-0 last year, the Wizards returned home and lost. Memories of last year — in spite of chatter that years can’t be compared — were discussed late night in Toronto after the Wizards had thrashed the Raptors in their engaging and raucous home gym earlier in the week.
“Last year, we didn’t protect home court and it kind of came back and [bit] us in the butts in that Indiana series,” Gooden said. “We knew the importance of this game. I think we played a step higher.”
The Wizards anticipated Game 3 would be more difficult, and it was. DeMar DeRozan scored 20 points in the first quarter. Rebounding, which the Wizards controlled without forgiveness in the first two games, nearly leveled. Toronto’s All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry was not jettisoned by whistles for the first time in the series, which subsequently didn’t leave the Raptors defensively vulnerable.
The Wizards’ factors for success remained the same. Wall again orchestrated with 15 more assists. Otto Porter remained a multifaceted irritant to Toronto. After blocking DeRozan’s shot from behind, Porter fired a few words toward the Toronto all-star. DeRozan ended up giving Porter a light shove, then words back. He was assessed a technical. Toronto is losing all aspects if Porter, a role player, has taken the fight to the Raptors’ marquee player and is winning.
Marcin Gortat was a force with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Paul Pierce dropped two resounding 3-pointers. The first, with 1:58 to play, put the Wizards up, 98-90, after a clean kick out from Gortat. Pierce took a victory lap of sorts, slapping hands with screaming patrons and walked past a stoic Drake, who was seated courtside, booed when he entered the building and booed when he left.
The second was more difficult. Three Raptors players closed in on Pierce. Bradley Beal was to his left, nestled near the corner, but not all that far away after returning from a bone bruise when he was struck with a knee in the second half. The shot clock was also against him. Only 1.2 seconds remained when he put the shot up with the Wizards leading by three points. After it dropped through with 16.9 to play, Pierce strutted up the court looking to the crowd as if the 20,356 were asking him something during the bedlam. He recycled his preferred post-big shot line, “That’s why I’m here.” A timeout was called, the Raptors’ hopes were wiped away again by Pierce, and he walked into the crowd with both arms up. The adulation washed over him like warmth from a high-sky sun.
“The first one, I put my hands up before he even shot it because I already knew it was going in,” Beal said. “The second one, there was four people including me who contested his shot. I don’t know how in the world he made that.”
Friday night presented maximum effort from Toronto. It was also another evening that outlined their individual offensive tendencies. After a dominating start, DeRozan was putrid. He was 3-for-18 from the field in the final three quarters. Porter tried not go for pump fakes and challenge whatever DeRozan hoisted. Lowry, who was able to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble for the first time in the series, was 5-for-22 from the field. In their desperation, the Raptors have devolved into isolationists. They had 21 assists on 37 made field goals. DeRozan and Lowry combined to take 51 of the team’s 99 shots.
“I think that plays into our hands,” Beal said. “I think it makes them stagnant. Everybody’s ball watching, seeing what DeMar’s going to do with the ball, seeing what Kyle’s going to do with the ball or Lou [Williams]. We get to load up a little bit. The bad thing is they have shooters, so you can’t load up too much, but I think we do a good job of balancing between the two.”
No magic bullet appears to exist for the Raptors. What worked during the regular season, when they swept the Wizards 3-0, is a non-factor now. What felt like their best effort was not enough again Friday.
“We are still on life support, but it is not over yet,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.
Down 3-0, they have one foot in the box. The Wizards expect to nail things shut on Sunday.
“We didn’t even think about being up 2-0 we were like, ‘Hey we have to treat this like a Game 7,’” Pierce said. “When you win a game like this — a team has little hope coming into this game — but when you win a game like this it pretty much diminishes a team’s hope when you get up to 3-0 and you have two more games at home. Our focus right now is to not go back to customs.”
If they do, Gooden will have to put on some pants.