Three years after the Washington Wizards made them disappear, the Toronto Raptors are looking for some playoff magic of their own.
The Raptors were swept by the Wizards in the first round in 2015 when all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan quickly succumbed to the Wizards’ backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
On Saturday, the Raptors and Wizards will tip off for a first-round rematch.
Now an ESPN commentator, Pierce this year has declared the Wizards his dark horse team to advance out of the first round.
With the Raptors the East’s No. 1 seed and the Wizards struggling at the end of the season, Toronto will get a chance to prove it finally has “it.”
Washington’s 2015 sweep is the only time the two teams have met in the playoffs.
Last year both teams were bounced in the second round. The Wizards fell in a tough seven-game series to the Boston Celtics, while the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There is one key difference, though. The Wizards have outperformed playoff expectations with their current core; the Raptors have severely underperformed. In fact, Lowry and DeRozan are among the worst volume shooters in NBA playoffs history.
Toronto has lost 10 straight Game 1s, with the Lowry/DeRozan Raptors accounting for the past seven. The pressure will be on for them to start strong this series. If the Raptors lose another Game 1, and Game 2 becomes essentially a must-win home game, the pressure will mount.
Washington faces no such pressure. The Wizards completed a mildly disappointing regular season, though Wall missed half the year. On a recent broadcast, ex-player Chris Webber said Wizards team executives “want Toronto.”
The Raptors enter the series relatively healthy. Backup point guard Fred VanVleet left the game against Miami Wednesday with a bruised shoulder, but X-rays came back negative on the undrafted sophomore. He’s listed as day-to-day.
In Washington, backup forward and three-point threat Mike Scott is currently sidelined with a concussion and is listed as day-to-day. Otto Porter Jr., — their primary DeRozan defender — is questionable for Game 1 with a right calf strain.
But the biggest concern is Wall. The former all-star played only 41 games this season and missed most of the second half following knee surgery before returning for the final two weeks.
Wall averaged 27.2 points per game last post-season. If he’s anything less than 100 per cent, it’s a big blow to the Wizards.
Unless a team seems to get along exceptionally well with each other, or, conversely, deals with lots of infighting, this category is a wash.
Both caveats apply to this series. Toronto has been a model of consistency and joy. From the bench mob running roughshod over opponents, to Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam vacationing together and endorsing Google Home together, to Lowry and DeRozan invading each other’s post-game interviews, it’s clear the Raptors enjoy playing for each other.
Meanwhile, Washington can’t seem to get along. Even with Wall back the last two weeks, head coach Scott Brooks has referred to the team as “selfish” and “embarrassing.”
The Wizards couldn’t even get along while winning. After a streak with Wall out, Beal was asked about the improvement and said “everybody eats,” meaning everyone got to touch the ball. Many interpreted that as a shot at Wall being a ball hog, which Beal denied.
If things start to go wrong for Washington — or apparently even if they go right — the series could go quickly south for the No. 8 seed.
By the numbers:
Toronto ranks third in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) at 111. Washington is 14th at 106.9. Toronto ranks fifth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 103.4. Washington slides in at 15th (106.2).
The Raptors are the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five of both categories.
The Wizards shoot three-pointers at 37.5 per cent; the Raptors are at 35.8 per cent. However, the Raptors’ overall field-goal percentage is half a tick higher than the Wizards’.
Each team ranks among the leaders in assists per game. Each boasts a middle-of-the-road rebounding unit.
All season long, the Raptors’ bench dominated its opponents. Among lineups that played 200 minutes this season, the Raptors’ bench – VanVleet, Miles, Poeltl, Siakam and Delon Wright – outscored its opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions. That was the fourth-best mark in the league.
Slotting sixth, however, are the Wizards starters, with Kelly Oubre Jr. replacing Markieff Morris alongside Wall, Beal, Porter Jr. and Marcin Gortat. The Raptors’ starters are 11th.
In the playoffs, starters minutes are typically amped up while the bench takes on a lesser role. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said this won’t be the case for Toronto, because of the bench’s success.
How they play when cross-matched with Washington’s starters could flip the series in Toronto’s favour.
Of course, if that doesn’t work, Toronto could go back to its starters, who are no slouches themselves.
Game 1 will be key – especially for Toronto. A Raptors win would put the team at ease and dash the Wizards’ over-confidence. A loss would feed into Washington’s mindset and rekindle the narrative of the Raptors as playoff chokers.
Still, the Raptors are quite clearly the better team. Raptors in 5.