TORONTO (AP) They won a second straight Atlantic Division title and set a franchise record with 49 victories. Both reasons to be proud, for sure. But it’s what the Raptors do next, now the playoffs have arrived, that will determine whether this season is a success.
The Raptors, who lost a Game 7 heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round last year, will try to advance for just the second time in their 20-year history when they face the Washington Wizards. Game 1 is Saturday in Toronto.
”This is the ultimate goal, to get to this point and build from here on out,” guard DeMar DeRozan said Friday. ”Last year we got a chance to play against a great veteran team and learn. This time it’s time to keep making steps forward. We can’t make steps back, we’ve got to keep going forward and continue to get better.”
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It’s been 14 years since Toronto’s only postseason triumph, a five-game victory over the New York Knicks in April 2001. The Raptors, who are making their seventh playoff appearance, have never won a seven-game series.
Guard Lou Williams wasn’t with Toronto last season, but said it’s clear the team is ”scarred” by its playoff experience, which ended with Kyle Lowry’s last-second shot being blocked by Paul Pierce and Brooklyn beating Toronto by one point to clinch the series. Pierce now plays for the Wizards.
”There’s been a lot of talk about a deep playoff run and how guys felt about the ending in Game 7 last year,” Williams said. ”It’s definitely something that’s been talked about and guys are prepared.”
DeRozan was recently reminded of the Game 7 loss when he saw the highlight of Lowry’s final shot in a TV commercial for this year’s playoffs. Sour though it may be, DeRozan said the memory of such a close defeat ”can’t do anything but make us hungrier.”
”It’s definitely tough to watch but we’re back here again and we can redeem ourselves,” DeRozan said.
Here are five other things to watch in the series between the Raptors and Wizards:
Both teams are loaded with talent in the backcourt. Toronto’s Lowry and DeRozan were second only to Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in guard scoring this season, while the Wizards are led by two-time All-Star John Wall and Bradley Beal. ”The guard play is going to be unbelievable,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. ”We have two excellent guards, they have two excellent guards.”
OH, SO CLOSE
Toronto won all three meetings with Washington this season, and three of four last season. However, three of the past four meetings have been decided by five points or fewer, and two went into overtime. One of those was Washington’s last win in the series, a 134-129 victory in triple OT at Toronto in February 2014. Beal said previous results don’t mean much at this point. ”With the playoffs here, (regular season results) don’t matter,” Beal said. ”It’s a totally different style of basketball. Totally different mentalities, totally different intensity level, totally different atmosphere.”
SUPERB SIXTH MAN
Williams averaged a career-high 15.5 points this season and is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man award. ”He’s the sixth man of the year for a reason,” Lowry said. ”There’s no question about it. If he doesn’t get Sixth Man of the Year, it would be a sham.”
ON THE SHELF
Wizards reserve guard Garrett Temple, who hasn’t played since March 9 because of a sore right hamstring, won’t be available in Game 1 and could miss the series entirely. Lowry played the final four games of the regular season after missing nine of the previous 10 with back spasms.
THE TRUTH HURTS
Pierce riled up the Raptors before the series was even set by saying Toronto didn’t trouble him as a potential playoff opponents. ”I don’t feel they have the `It’ that makes you worried,” Pierce told ESPN. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who was fined $25,000 after opening last year’s playoffs by using a profanity about Brooklyn, decided to hold his tongue, and his wallet, this time around. ”I honestly don’t have enough money to respond to him,” Ujiri said Thursday. ”I think if I did have enough money, everybody knows exactly how I would respond to it, and how the whole of Toronto would respond to it.”
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich and freelancer Benjamin Standig in Washington contributed to this report.