“That is a bad man, number 34.” Those are the words color commentator Doris Burke used to describe Paul Pierce’s game-sealing three-pointer against the Toronto Raptors last night. In just thirty seconds the Raptors cut an eight point deficit to three, and if the Wizards had come up empty, the Raptors would’ve had a shot to send the game to overtime. But 23 seconds into a 24 second possession, Pierce—the veteran of 151 playoff games—launched a double-clutch shot that smacked the back iron on its way down.
After the game, the Raptors seemed to be at a loss to describe what had happened. They are the higher seed, the team that swept three regular season meetings, yet find themselves in an 0-3 hole, a hole no NBA team has ever climbed out of. Kyle Lowry said the Wizards did a good job making himself, DeMar DeRozan, and Lou Williams take tough shots, while DeRozan told reporters, “They didn’t do nothing at all. Every shot I took felt good, or I rushed it a little bit. They just didn’t do nothing.”
The contradictory explanations make sense, as it is much harder for the Raptors to admit the real reason for the loss: they just aren’t a good enough basketball team. Not stylistically, but they remind me of the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets teams, in that they have a collection of good but not great players. Kyle Lowry is the closest thing they have to a superstar, but he isn’t, and DeRozan, Williams, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, James Johnson and the rest are all good too, but none of them strike fear into opponents’s hearts. And with free agents as lukewarm about Toronto as they are about Denver, that’s going to be awfully hard to change.
As for the Wizards, most of the pieces are already there. John Wall is a top five point guard and top 15 player, and they have no obvious weaknesses either. They lack another star player to slot alongside Wall—if you’re optimistic, Bradley Beal will still develop into that player—but not much else. The Wizards’s biggest barrier to success has been coach Randy Wittman’s tactics. But all of a sudden, in the playoffs, he’s a new man. Wittman has Paul Pierce playing at the four, he’s giving Otto Porter legitimate minutes, and he isn’t sitting Marcin Gortat for the entirety of fourth quarters anymore. At this point, you’ve got to think they have a shot against the Hawks in the next round, right?