TORONTO • Not long after the Toronto Raptors applied a healthy dose of antacid to the queasy stomach of the team’s fan base on Friday night, and right about the time Kyle Lowry was nagging DeMar DeRozan at the interview podium like an annoying little brother, Washington started having the what-now discussions about the Wizards.
As in, what should be done now with that roster? The Wizards are built around three huge contracts — John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter will make a combined US$70-million next season — and after an early playoff exit it’s reasonable to wonder if that core has already bumped into its ceiling.
As it happens, that would be the exact same discussion underway in Toronto had the Raptors, who trailed in the fourth quarter of each of Games 5 and 6, not managed to go on timely runs that allowed them to win the games, and the series. The Raptors also have a high-priced core, with Lowry, DeRozan and Serge Ibaka due a combined US$75-million next season.
But that is about where the roster comparisons end. Toronto, despite its stumbles against the Wizards, ultimately performed as designed, getting mostly strong play from their two All-Stars and then all kinds of assorted contributions from the rest of the roster. The Raptors were not a masterpiece of consistency, but everyone chipped in at some point.
And in beating Washington, Toronto upended some common NBA wisdom — that the team with the best player in a series will ultimately prevail. It might not be common wisdom for much longer, which is good news for the Raptors.
As much as DeRozan and Lowry are legitimate NBA stars, good enough to be All-Star regulars and U.S. Olympians, Wall was the best player in the series. A former first overall draft pick, he tormented Toronto with his speed, was the most active playmaker in the series with almost 12 assists per game, and scored just four fewer points than DeRozan over six games.
Raptors struggled to slow him down in every game, and Toronto was bailed out somewhat by the fact that he had such a heavy workload. Late in Games, particularly the last two, he looked to be out of gas; he had played more than 40 minutes in each of them by that point.
Before that final contest, Wizards coach Scott Brooks had said that high playoff minutes are “overrated,” explaining that the extra days off in between games, and the extra-long timeouts (for television-related reasons) allowed players to take on a greater workload.
Leaving aside the question of whether having an extra 30 seconds here and there would do much other than allow a player to catch his breath, Brooks’ attitude is a common one: that the playoffs are when you ride your big horses, and whoever has the biggest one wins.
But while the Raptors won with Lowry and DeRozan repeatedly taking to the bench for long stretches — the latter didn’t even play until the 3:31 mark of the fourth quarter in Game 6 — they were not the only team in the first round of the playoffs to rely more on an ensemble that a single star.
The Boston Celtics, despite the absence of Kyrie Irving from the team that finished just behind Toronto for the second-best record in the East, managed to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games even though Giannis Antetokounmpo was far and away the most dominant force on either team.
In the West, the Utah Jazz took out the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games despite the presence of 2017 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook on the losing team.
One could argue that in Paul George, OKC also had the second-best player on either team — with apologies to Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell — and yet the Thunder still lost. Westbrook and Antetokounmpo were the leading scorers in their series, but they were beaten by teams that spread the ball around more and could find offence in different ways.
Which brings us to the LeBron in the room. It took seven games, but the best player in the world finally got the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, meaning they will begin the second round in Toronto.
It’s hard to imagine two rosters with a sharper contrast: James has dragged the Cavs this far mostly on his own, a point underscored by the fact that half the roster was shipped out at the trade deadline.
People joke about whether LeBron could make the Finals with 10 guys selected at random off the street, but sometimes that’s what the Cavaliers appear to be. On the other side are the Raptors, with two All-Stars, neither of whom would ever be expected to perform LeBron-like dominance, and then wave after wave of interchangeable part.
It’s like the perfect laboratory setting to test the old NBA maxim. Cleveland has the best guy, without question. But Toronto has the numbers.
The experiment begins on Tuesday.