Raptors hope to exorcise playoff demons against Wizards in 1st round

Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan (10) and Kyle Lowry (7) walk to the bench in the second half of Game 4 in the first round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Washington Wizards, Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Washington. The Wizards won 125-94 to complete the first sweep of a seven-game series in club history, and advancing them to the second-round. The Toronto Raptors can exorcise some post-season demons when they face the Washington Wizards in the opening round. The Wizards are responsible for one of the Raptors' most humiliating post-season performances, dispatching them in four games in the first round in 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Alex Brandon

TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors' slogan for the NBA playoffs says everything: "Prove 'em."

Coming off their finest regular season in franchise history, the Raptors are now aiming to exorcise some huge post-season demons, and prove the doubters wrong.

Toronto, which earned the No. 1 seed after its historic 59-23 season, opens the playoffs Saturday against the Washington Wizards, a team reponsible for handing it one of its most humiliating performances in playoff history — the Raptors' sweep at the hands of the Wiz in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs.

"The guys that were here three years ago know what it was like to get swept. It wasn't a great feeling at all," DeMar DeRozan said. "You learn from your mistakes, you understand how to be better. To have another opportunity to compete with these guys again, it's definitely going be fun. It's always one of those scrappy, competitive games . . . games you want to be a part of."

Coach Dwane Casey bristled when asked about the 2015 playoffs. It's ancient history, he says.

"How many years ago has that been?" Casey said.

A victory out of the gates Saturday at the Air Canada Centre would be significant in itself.

Toronto hasn't won an opening game in the post-season since 2001, when they defeated Philadelphia in the first game of a second-round series before losing in seven games.

The Raptors are a woeful 1-11 all-time in Game 1s, including losing all of their openers in the last four years and effectively coughing up home-court advantage each time.

"I only think about it when y'all bring it up, honestly," DeRozan said, on their Game 1 woes. "We been great at home all year. It's definitely something we took more pride in more than ever and I think it showed. With that, we got that (unspoken) confidence this time around more than ever.

"It's one of those moments where we feel like when we're on our home floor, anything's possible, and our swag is at an all-time high."

And while many of the faces are the same, the Raptors are a significantly different squad from three seasons ago, or even last season. After being ousted by Cleveland for the second straight year, team president Masai Ujiri spoke of a cultural reset, and then charged Casey with changing the team's style of play.

Not an easy task, but it worked. A team that once ran many of its plays through Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, is now all about sharing the ball.

"That's one reason why we did change our offensive and defensive approach, to give us some other options in the playoffs when teams do try to take away DeMar and Kyle in those situations," Casey said. "Our passing is up. We've gone from 30th to sixth in assists. That's a huge jump.

"We're a different team than three years ago. That's one reason why we did change things and make things different. Our number of passes are way up. All of those things are huge plusses as far as playoff basketball is concerned."

Will their new ball-sharing style hold up in the playoffs?

"We did it 82 games. We won 59 games," DeRozan said. "If that's not the ultimate understanding of what got us here wasn't a fluke. . . it really worked, we're not gonna stray from that. I think that speaks for itself. We know what works for us, what got us here, and what's going to take us even further."

The Raptors have also improved their three-point shooting after losing a shootout to the Cavs last season. And they've developed one of the best second units in the NBA. The Raptors ran a tongue-in-cheek social media campaign to have their "bench mob" in its entirety considered for the sixth man of the year award.

The Raptors-Wizards series is seen to be the most lopsided in the opening round. While they split their season series, the Raptors' 7.2-point margin of victory is the largest among the eight playoff series.

Toronto is the only playoff team that ranks in the top five on both offence and defence, while Washington sits in the middle of the pack.

And while the Raptors once spoke about the pressures of playing on homecourt, they have embraced it this season, tying Houston for a league-best 34 wins at home.

The Raptors' 7-6 record to close the season is concerning, although Washington (43-39) lost nine of its last 12, including a 101-92 defeat in Wednesday's regular-season finale against an Orlando team that had nothing to play for.

The return of Washington guard John Wall will also be an intriguing storyline this series. Wall was sidelined for a good chunk of the season — including all four games against Toronto — with a knee injury.

"It's a whole new dynamic for us," DeRozan said. "I think that's the beauty of this weekend, understanding we're going to have to come out and compete at the highest level. We've gotta be better than what we've been all season, and we all understand that."

If the Raptors get past Washington, they'll likely face their biggest post-season demon of all: LeBron James. The Raptors would play the winner of Cleveland versus Indiana in the second round.

Game 2 of the first round is Tuesday in Toronto, then the series moves to Washington for Game 3 on Friday and 4 on Sunday.

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