- - Saturday, April 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Fear, doubt and uncertainty were in the air Friday night as the Wizards resumed their first-round playoff series against top-seeded Toronto at Capital One Arena. Nothing over the course of two games across the border instilled much confidence among Washington’s fan base that a turnaround was ahead.

Coach Scott Brooks‘ pleas for better defense had gone unheeded. The Wizards had wilted in the fourth quarter of the opener and collapsed in the first quarter of Game 2. Whether it was the execution, the effort, or the X’s and O’s, the Wizards were lacking in every way.

But the Wizards weren’t going down without a fight. Literally.

No longer “too cool for school” as owner Ted Leonis described them earlier this season, the Wizards were itching for a scrap. Blood boiled, and it was bad. The Raptors got the worst end, trailing by as many as 22 points in a 122-103 defeat.

Markieff Morris exchanged shoves with OG Anunoby less than three minutes into the game, both players earning technical fouls. Bradley Beal took a long slow walk to blow off steam two minutes after intermission after being whacked in the head by Kyle Lowry, who was assessed a flagrant foul.

Not much later, John Wall and Serge Ibaka had to be separated, the latter going ballistic over something Wall said. The Wizards led by 10 at that point. The bulge was 19 at quarter’ end.

“They played the way you’re supposed to in a playoff game,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said of the Wizards. “Physical. Aggressive. Into you. It was a physical battle between two good teams.”

One team, Toronto, clearly was better throughout the regular season and first two games of this playoff series – but not so much in head-to-head matchups. Casey reiterated Friday night that Washington “is not your typical number eight seed. All this talk about how they’re not together is (nonsense).”

They were together from the start in Game 3, sparked by a raucous home crowd and a sense of frenzied desperation. The All-Star backcourt of Wall and Beal led the way with 28 points apiece, followed by much maligned center Marcin Gortat, who showed up with – in Brooks‘ words – “an age-appropriate haircut.”

“That was a key,” Wall said. “He shocked us when cut his mohawk.”

Wall and Beal were relaxed and carefree as they shared the postgame podium, finally able to bask in a victory. Conversely, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan entered the room like a battered fighter, wearing a bandage under his left eye – which appeared a bit puffy.

Both DeRozan and Lowry downplayed the extracurricular activities, no matter how bad it looked at times.

“Ain’t nobody fighting out here,” Lowry said. “It got physical but ain’t nobody fighting. There were heated moments but that’s basketball.”

DeRozan said the Raptors weren’t prepared for the level of aggressiveness they faced. The Wizards forced 18 turnovers and shot 55 percent from the field, including 10-of-23 on 3-pointers. They won inside (52-44 on points in the paint) and on the break (21-10 on fastbreak points).

“I thought the crowd was a big part of the win,” Brooks said. “It was a great environment. We needed every ounce of energy and our guys responded and played well.”

Especially Wall, still finding his way back after an extended absence. He recorded 14 assists – often finding Gortat for easy layups off pick-and-roll action – and added six rebounds and four steals. Beal remarked how much easier the game is for everyone when Wall plays.

“John and Brad are the head of the snake,” Lowry said. “We have to cut them off.”

The battle continues Sunday and Toronto vows to increase its intensity level. Brooks knows the Wizards can’t be satisfied with Game 3 because it will take a greater effort to even the series heading back to Toronto. But like Casey, Brooks doesn’t mind the chippiness on display as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.

“That’s the playoffs,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to stand your ground. Not looking to fight but both teams are emotionally invested. I give the guys credit for keeping their cool when it’s not always easy to do. Don’t want it to get ugly, just physical basketball within the rules fighting for every possession.”

Round Four coming up.

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