WASHINGTON - The more things change with the Raptors, the more things stay the same.
And so they're heading back to Toronto with their first-round series against the Wizards tied at two games apiece, having struggled to deal with the opposing defense taking away what has been their strength all season. The Wizards held the Raptors to less than a point per possession in their 106-98 victory in Game 4 on Sunday.
It's the same story as the last few years, except it's different.
Prior to Toronto's "culture reset" of last summer, the way to slow down the Raptors' offense was to force ball movement by aggressively defending pick-and-rolls involving Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. It just wasn't in the Raptors' DNA to take advantage of the extra attention paid to their two All-Stars, and they scored nine fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs (99) than they did in the regular season (108) over the last three years.
The Wizards tried an aggressive scheme in Games 1 and 2 this year, and it didn't work. The Raptors have changed their tactics this season, have built better habits over the course of 82 games and know what to do when DeRozan or Lowry draw two defenders to the basketball.
From last season to this season, they saw the league's biggest increase in assist percentage (AST/FGM) and its second-biggest increase in the percentage of shots that came from 3-point range, with eight different Raptors having attempted at least 150 3s over the course of the season (up from five last season).
In Games 1 and 2, Raptors not named Lowry or DeRozan shot 52 percent (22-for-42) from 3-point range. With the series moving to Washington, Toronto had the postseason's most efficient offense (119 points scored per 100 possessions) along with a 2-0 series lead.
So the Wizards changed things up in Games 3 and 4, either switching pick-and-rolls (when the screener's defender was another guard or forward) or dropping back (when the screener's defender was a center). And they've found success by nullifying the Raptors' ball movement and actually keeping the ball in the hands of Toronto's stars, the opposite of what has worked against this team in years past.
It's not something the Raptors haven't seen before. Plenty of teams switched screens in the regular season, and the league's third-ranked offense knew how to deal with it. Against a switching or "drop" scheme, the Raptors want to keep the floor spaced and allow their ball handlers to attack one-on-one. If help comes, then the ball moves and finds open shooters.
There have been some good possessions in the last two games, but not enough. And the Wizards have done a good enough job of staying in front of Lowry and DeRozan to avoid needing help. DeRozan earned 18 free throw attempts in Game 4, and both All-Stars have gotten more shots at the basket in the last two games than they did in Games 1 and 2.
"The switching is definitely changing things, but we are still getting off of it," Lowry said. "We are still getting in the paint. We are still driving, kicking and swinging. When they are making their runs and they are switching, we still have to play our game. We still have to get one big down, play our offense."
But most of those shots at the basket have been contested (Lowry and DeRozan combined to shoot 10-for-22 in the restricted area in Games 3 and 4), and the Wizards' adjustments have kept Toronto's supporting cast in check.
With less help needed on pick-and-rolls, other defenders on the floor have been able to stay at home, close passing lanes and force turnovers (39 for Toronto in Games 3 and 4 combined). And when those other players do get the ball, there's less time and less space with which to shoot. After shooting 22-for-42 from 3-point range in Games 1 and 2, the other Raptors shot just 8-for-25 from beyond the arc in Games 3 and 4. And it's about the attempts as much as it is the makes.
The Wizards have taken the Raptors out of their rhythm and made the No. 1 seed uncomfortable. Shooters have been hesitant, not having the time and space that they had earlier in the series.
"We didn't have the flow on offense, not at all," Raptors reserve Jakob Poeltl said. "We didn't get the shots we wanted. We got late into the shot clock almost every time."
The Raptors still led by eight with less than eight minutes to go in Game 4, and the Wizards' Bradley Beal fouled out with 4:58 remaining. But Toronto scored just eight points on its final 16 possessions of the game, and the ugly offense allowed the Wizards to get out in transition, where they're at their best. It was a blown opportunity to go up 3-1 with Game 5 in Toronto on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
"We were playing frenetic down the stretch," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "You have to give Washington credit. They played tremendously. They got into us, took us out of some things we wanted to do."
These Raptors are different from the Raptors of the past. But the situation that they're in, unable to take care of business against a lower-seed defense that is forcing them to go away from what has been successful all season long, feels very familiar.