TORONTO — With just under nine minutes to play, and Game 5 threatening to slip away, coach Dwane Casey went with a lineup that had played less than 10 minutes together all season.
DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles closed out a thrilling 108-98 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, and now the Toronto Raptors are one win away from the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Moments after the win, DeRozan reflected on the victory that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead, saying the hodgepodge lineup is characteristic of their strong season, that was built with an emphasis of sharing the load.
"I think we always prepare for any lineup that goes out there," DeRozan said. "Even though we didn't play much with that lineup this year, we all understand all our capabilities, when guys line up out there, what we're all capable of doing offensively and defensively, and it showed tonight."
DeRozan had 30 of his 32 points through three quarters, then turned facilitator in the fourth. Lowry finished with 17 points and 10 assists, while Wright scored 18 points off the bench. Valanciunas, who made his first fourth-quarter appearance of the series, had 14 points and 13 rebounds.
"Everybody stepped up, Delon stepped up big. With C.J. out there, he spaces the floor tremendously, they've got to worry about a knock-down shooter like him," DeRozan said. "And we just exploited everything individual-wise that we could do, offensively and defensively."
John Wall led the Wizards with 26 points, but had seven turnovers, while Bradley Beal added 20.
Through the first three quarters, Washington seemed the hungrier team in a back-and-forth battle that saw neither team lead by double digits. The Wizards were winning most of the loose balls and dominating the boards — they would outrebound Toronto 50-35.
But after losing two games in Washington, the Raptors returned to Toronto with confidence in their home court that had seen them lose just seven times in the regular season.
The Raptors clutched a one-point lead going into the fourth quarter in front of a nervous Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,987 that included Drake and Canadian swimming star Penny Oleksiak. Thousands more anxious fans gathered outside in Maple Leaf Square to watch both the Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs play on the big screens.
When Kelly Oubre converted a three-point play, it gave the Wizards a five-point lead with 8:52 to play. But two minutes later, the speedy Wall had the ball stolen by Valanciunas, a lumbering big man by comparison, and DeRozan finished the play with an emphatic dunk, bringing the fans to their feet with a roar.
"It was great," Casey said on the closing lineup. "We're trying to get something. You're searching, you're trying to pull strings, and we had some guys that didn't have their best games at that position tonight and we were searching.
"The key was Jonas did a good job of moving his feet, guarding (Markieff) Morris, guarding their small lineup, which was huge. And that gave us an opportunity to stay with that lineup."
The white-clad Raptors fans stayed on their feet as Wright first hit a three, then scored on a layup on Toronto's next trip down the floor, putting the Raptors up by six with 2:58 to play. Valanciunas drove to the hoop for a layup just over a minute later to make it a 10-point game, flexing his muscles as he ran back down the floor. Miles scored a three with 41 seconds left, the punctuation mark on a thrilling ending.
"We just played hard, man," Miles said. "That was a fun game to play in. Everybody competing, everybody working hard, hitting shots on both ends, making guys on both sides make plays. I think the biggest thing was all five of us communicated and we just got after it. I don't think there were any secrets to it."
Neither team has won on the other's floor. The Raptors took Games 1 and 2 — by scores of 114-106 and 130-119 — but their figurative wheels fell off when the series switched to Washington for Games 3 and 4.
The Wizards clobbered Toronto 122-103 in Game 3, then came from behind to beat the Raptors 106-98 in Game 4 to even the series, and force a Game 6. Game 7, if necessary, will be back in Toronto.
Casey said the losses were uncharacteristic of how the Raptors have played on the road this season. Lowry agreed.
"I think we've just got to go out there and play our game," he said. "I think Games 3 and 4 we turned the ball over too much, I think we let them be comfortable a little bit, I think they were the more physical team, I think it's just a place where we've got to take our attitude of 'let 'em fly' on the road. We've got to shoot more threes, we've got to play faster, but we've also got to be disciplined in knowing what the gameplan is, and we've got to stick with the gameplan."
A moment of silence was held before tipoff for those who died in Monday's horrific van attack in Toronto that left 10 dead, and 14 injured, and both teams held black #Torontostrong banners during the anthems. The two teams, plus the NBA, are donating to a fund set up to help the families affected by the attack.
The Raptors missed their first three shots of the game, but then made six of their next seven. DeRozan had 13 points in the first quarter and his driving layup gave Toronto a six-point lead. But the Wizards closed with a run capped by Wall's shot at the buzzer that put Washington up 24-23 heading into the second.
The Wizards led by five early in the second, but the Raptors responded with a 18-6 run to go ahead by seven. Washington ended the half on an 11-5 run, and Beal's three with 10 seconds left cut the Raptors' lead at halftime to just 48-47.
The Wizards shot 61 per cent in the third quarter, while the Raptors had five three-pointers to lead by one with a quarter left.