When Wizards coach Randy Wittman talked about the difficult task of winning four games in a seven-game series, he wasn’t spouting an old coaching cliché.
He knew the Toronto Raptors would come out Friday with a sense of desperation they didn’t exhibit during the first two games at Air Canada Centre. He also remembered last season, when the Wizards returned from Chicago after winning a pair of series-opening contests and promptly dropped Game 3 at Verizon Center.
“(This) is going to be harder to play than the first two games (in Toronto),” Wittman warned prior to the Wizards’ 106-99 nail-biter in front of a frenzied sellout crowd. “It just gets that way as the series moves on.”
Moving on was at the forefront of everyone’s mind – except the Raptors – as fans streamed into the arena, where they found either a red, white or blue shirt draped over their back. But the visitors weren’t ready to face the brink of elimination just yet.
The Raptors had everything to lose, yet it was the Wizards who seemingly faced more pressure, the burden of playing as if they weren’t up 2-0. Because winning the first two games at Toronto was great, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the Raptors ensured a return trip at their first opportunity.
A loss would only increase the intensity on Sunday. The scenario worked out fine against the Bulls last season, but taking unnecessary backward steps is a nerve-wracking way to make progress.
As long as Toronto kept the game close, the Wizards would be unable to relax. And the Raptors did just that, leading by two points after the first quarter and trailing by two points entering the final quarter.
“We knew they were going to come in and try to knock us out,” Wittman said. “I told the guys I’m proud that we took some punches. We stayed focused and did what we wanted to do.”
If the Wizards were going to fold they had the perfect opportunity. The crowd was pumped and had numerous opportunities to roar all night thanks to the exploits of Marcin Gortat (24 points and 13 rebounds) and John Wall (19 points and 15 assists).
But the Raptors were down by a mere three points when Paul Pierce hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 16.3 seconds left in the game.
“That’s why I’m here,” Pierce mouthed to the crowd as he walked toward the opposite baseline and soaked in the adulation with arms raised overhead. “Give it to me.”
Since setting the tone in Game 1, Pierce has left most of the heavy lifting to the youngsters. Pet project Otto Porter had another impactful game, hitting a pair of huge three-pointers in the fourth quarter. The first one broke an 88-88 tie, giving Washington the lead for good.
“As long as Otto plays aggressively, that’s my main thing,” Wittman said. “Early in the year when he was out with the starters, he almost played like he didn’t want to be in their way. I said I want you to force me to say ‘You’re doing too much out there.’ He still hasn’t done that yet.”
Porter didn’t shrink in the moment and neither did his teammates. It would take more than Toronto jumping out to a 10-point lead, paced by DeMar DeRozan’s 20-point first quarter. The Wizards also were unfazed when a nine-point lead evaporated at the end of the third quarter.
“We took some punches but we stayed focused and did what we had to do,” Wittman said. “I never saw any panic in the guys eyes.”
The game was filled with tension but the Wizards never got tight. Some of the sloppiness that plagued them at points during the season resurfaced as they committed 17 turnovers – 11 in the second half – but they were determined to play as if their season was on the line, not Toronto’s.
“The mindset was to protect our home court,” Pierce said. “We have tried to establish something here at home from Day 1. We didn’t even think about being up 2-0. We said we have to treat this like a Game 7. When you win a game like this, it pretty much diminishes a team’s hope. Our focus right now is to not go back through customs.”
Landing the knockout blow won’t be easy.
“The hardest thing to do is to sweep, to close-out,” he said. “We have to be ready for their best punch. We got a good punch from them tonight and we have to be ready again.”
After surviving Friday night’s slugfest, the decision is just about in. It looks likes the Raptors’ best can’t hurt the Wizards.
But Washington has to prove it one more time.