TORONTO — A “culture reset” carried the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time this season.
Next, the Raptors will try to hit reset on their playoff history with the Washington Wizards.
After Cleveland swept the Raptors in the second round last spring, team president Masai Ujiri promised to change the culture surrounding the club.
That meant greater emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting, something the Raptors were able to execute immediately. Toronto had 67 games with at least 20 assists, up from 34 the previous year, and averaged 33 shots a game from beyond the arc, third most in the NBA.
“We won 59 games,” All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan said. “I think that speaks for itself. We know what works for us, what got us here, and what’s going to take us even further.”
Thanks to the offensive overhaul, this Raptors team is far removed from the one swept in the first round in 2015, a series in which the Wizards won by an average of 14 points.
“That’s old news, it’s years ago,” All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’re a different team, different style of play, different people, different egos.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey said the humiliating sweep helped sow the seeds for Ujiri’s reset.
“That’s one reason why we did change things,” Casey said. “To give us some other options in the playoffs when teams do try to take away DeMar and Kyle.”
Toronto may have retooled its way to the top of the East, but the Raptors still face a tough first-round test against Washington’s tandem of All-Star guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The speedy Wall averaged 19.4 points and 9.6 assists this season. He would have ranked second in the NBA in assists but was limited to 41 games because of injuries, too few to qualify.
“We’re not going to look at them like they’re the eighth seed because we understand what this team is capable of,” DeRozan said.
Still, the Wizards lost five of their final six games, including defeats to Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando, the three worst teams in the East.
Some other things to watch in the series:
GAME 1 BLUES
The Raptors have lost 10 straight opening games in playoff series, six at home. Toronto has played 13 series in franchise history and won one Game 1, beating Philadelphia in the second round in 2001. “We’ve lost a lot of Game 1s,” said Lowry, who has been part of the past seven defeats. “We have to play it like a Game 7.”
Toronto and Washington split their four games this season, but Wall missed them all because of injuries. Facing the Wizards with Wall is “a whole new dynamic,” DeRozan said. Wall returned March 31 after being sidelined for more than two months because of left-knee surgery and was held out on the second night of back-to-backs down the stretch. Wall will have plenty of time to rest in this series, with two days off between Games 1 and 2, two more before Game 3 and, if necessary, two days off between Games 4 and 5.
Toronto’s bench averaged 42 points a game this season, tied with San Antonio for fourth most in the NBA. Led by guards Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet, forwards C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam, and center Jakob Poeltl, Toronto’s bench posted an NBA-best plus-minus of 3.6, easily outpacing second-place Houston (2.3). Casey said he doesn’t want to be bound by traditional basketball thinking in which starters play more and reserves less in the postseason. “They’re a huge part of who we are,” Casey said. “We’re going in making sure we try to keep our second unit intact.” VanVleet, however, is questionable for Game 1 because of a bruised right shoulder.
Toronto F Serge Ibaka left Wednesday’s season finale after being elbowed in the mouth but is expected to start Saturday. … Washington F Otto Porter is questionable for Game 1 because of a strained right calf. He sat out Wednesday. … Wizards F Mike Scott (concussion protocol) could miss Game 1 after being hit in the head Wednesday. … Washington G Jodie Meeks will miss the series after being suspended 25 games Friday for a drug violation. … The Wizards added depth Thursday by signing G Ty Lawson. The 30-year-old Lawson played most recently in the Chinese Basketball Association.
The series winner will face Cleveland or Indiana. That likely means a matchup with LeBron, whose team has represented the East in seven straight NBA Finals. James and the Cavs have eliminated Toronto from the playoffs two straight years, including a conference finals defeat in 2016. Toronto is seeded first and had hoped it could steer clear of James & Co. until the conference finals. But Philadelphia’s season-ending 16-game winning streak vaulted the 76ers past Cleveland.