WASHINGTON -- When Washington Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. poked the ball away from Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and raced down the court on the inbounds of the last possession of Game 4, Kyle Lowry wasn't going to wait around for what was a fait accompli. Oubre pulled the ball back out, and before he could whittle away the final nine seconds of the 106-98 Washington win, Lowry had already marched through the visitors' tunnel at Capital One Arena with his head down.
A game the top-seeded Raptors had led by 11 points at the half -- and by eight with less than eight minutes remaining -- had slipped. Toronto now finds itself tied 2-2, with Game 5 scheduled on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre against a resurgent Wizards team that stated on Sunday night has identified the formula for knocking off the Raptors. "[We] know what we can do to beat this team," Wizards guard John Wall said from the postgame podium. "We know what we got to do to stop this team."
Wall's confidence is to be admired, and the Wizards deserve praise for a more deceptive defense that lured Toronto into a lousy combination of mismatch basketball, frenzied turnovers and missed opportunities on the offensive end. But whatever strategies Washington deployed effectively on Sunday night, the Raptors' failures in Game 4 were largely self-inflicted.
"We passed up some shots," Lowry said. "We didn't move the ball as well. We just got stagnant."
There were faint hints of the stagnation in the first half, when the Raptors scored 51 points in 49 possessions, a mark well below the brutal efficiency the offense had achieved in the first three games of the series. Breakdowns have a way of being covered over when a defense turns in its best half of the postseason: The Raptors bottled up Wall's pick-and-roll attack, which had bludgeoned them for 1.17 points per possession on direct picks, and allowed the Wizards only six points on nine direct picks in the first half.
Yet Toronto's offense appeared less oiled, less resourceful and less trusting throughout the game. In the first three games of the series, the Raptors initiated only 37 isolation possessions -- among the fewest in the playoff field. In Game 4, they tallied 20 isolation possessions, a figure that more resembles past Raptors' teams than the squad we saw in Toronto over the first two games swinging the ball from side-to-side, triggering second-side actions when first options were shut down, finding the likes of CJ Miles, OG Anunoby and Delon Wright with their feet set on reversals.
"You always want more ball movement and we can get better ball movement," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "I have to look at [the film] and see if we got what we wanted. I thought their defense was into us and made it tough for us."
On the heels of an 18-4 Washington run in the third quarter, just after Lowry settled the indigestion with a driving layup, and-1, Raptors guard DeRozan gathered his teammates before Lowry walked to the line and told them, "We need to keep moving." Valanciunas had been late on a screen during the previous possession, and the gears were grinding.
DeRozan led all scorers with 35 points. And while he worked his way to the line for 18 free-throw attempts, it was possibly his least efficient outing of the series, a performance that seemed more solo practitioner than team catalyst.
"I took some shots that I wish I could have had back," DeRozan said. "But it's just my mindset going out there and being aggressive, wanting to win, wanting to feel like I was doing whatever it took offensively to push us to a win. But with that came some bad shots that I will definitely understand next time."
His instincts are sincere, but too often on Sunday night, DeRozan was lured into poor decision-making with the Wizards' bait -- be it attacking mismatch against Wizards center Ian Mahinmi that resulted in turnovers, or a heel-on-the-line contested 22-footer with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock after fumbling the incoming pass from Lowry.
Among players during the regular season who attempted at least 500 shots (field goals or a shot resulting in a trip to the line), DeRozan ranked 175 out of 176 (Jamal Crawford) in quantified shot quality, Second Spectrum's metric that measures the likelihood of a shot going in if the average NBA player takes the shot. DeRozan is decidedly not an average NBA player, but one who thrives with a high degree of difficulty.
In the first three games of the series, DeRozan posted a quantified shot quality of 45.6 -- measurably better than his regular season. But in Game 4, the number was an abysmal 36.2 percent.
Critiquing the shot selection of a team leader who rebounded his position well, dished out six assists, accepted defensive challenges (witness DeRozan blunting Wall at the basket on a break in the game's opening minutes) seems a bit exacting. He accounted for only four of the Raptors' 18 unsightly turnovers. While DeRozan might have taken some ill-advised shots, the Raptors also suffered from an occasional unwillingness to take the sorts of open looks they shot with ease and great effect back in Toronto.
Yet so much of Toronto's maturation this season is a reflection of DeRozan's individual growth and an affirmation of his leadership. He expanded his range and skill set when the schemes and principles of a revised offense demanded he do so. He embraced playmaking, an evolution that prompted him last week to state that he welcomed Washington's trapping defenses because it empowered him to give up the ball and find teammates with alternate actions and better looks.
The fact that the Wizards have eased some of that pressure and attention should not be an invitation for the Raptors' most prolific player to revert to old habits -- but a challenge for him to maintain the new ones.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected for a quote by John Wall that was initially attributed to Bradley Beal.