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Wizards, Raptors seek fresh start after second half slump

Series Preview: Raptors vs. Wizards

POSTED: Apr 16, 2015 8:40 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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There was a time when the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards looked like the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Through Dec. 29, they were a combined 46-15.

But things went south for both teams after that. Their shooting guards dealt with injuries, Toronto's defense fell apart, and Washington struggled to score. They fell to fourth and fifth in the conference and into a matchup with each other. On one end of the floor, this series will be a bad offense vs. a bad defense.

But on the other end of the floor, it will be a top-five offense against a top-five defense. Led by their guards, the Raptors had the best offense in the Eastern Conference. They took care of the ball, shot a lot of threes, and got to the free throw line. The Wizards, meanwhile, had the East's second best defense. They kept their opponents out of the paint and rebounded well.

Neither team arrives with much momentum, but the playoffs provide a fresh start. History tells us that late-season momentum means little when it comes to postseason success. And both teams are relatively healthy. The Raptors swept the regular-season series 3-0, but all three meetings took place before the All-Star break and the last two were both decided in the final seconds.

The Wizards won a playoff round last season and don't want to take a step backward. The Raptors, meanwhile, own the league's longest drought since last winning a playoff series (2001). Both teams are likely looking at this series as a way to put their second-half struggles behind them.

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Five quick questions (and answers)

1. How important is home-court advantage? The Air Canada Centre is ridiculously loud in the playoffs, but the Raptors lost two of their four playoff games there last year, while the Wizards went 5-1 in Chicago and Indiana in the 2014 postseason. The team without home-court advantage has won 33 of the 62 series between teams that were within four games of each other in the regular season standings over the last 12 years. These teams were just three games apart.

2. Which team has depth on its side? The Raptors, for sure. The Wizards are good as long as they have three or more starters on the floor, and will be the team ahead at the end of the first quarter more often than not. But when three or more of their starters are on the bench, their defense falls off a cliff and they lose leads. The Raptors, meanwhile, are at their best with their reserves on the floor. They outscored their opponents by almost 12 points per 100 possessions in almost 500 minutes with Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough on the floor together.

3. Which All-Star point guard is more important to his team? Kyle Lowry is a bulldog on both ends of the floor and has willed his team to several wins over the last couple of years, but he has three other guards -- DeMar DeRozan, Vasquez and Williams -- to help carry the playmaking load. Wall led the league in time of possession and the Wizards' other playmakers have been inconsistent. His play will be the bigger bellwether.

4. Which starting center is more likely to be on the floor down the stretch of a close game? If you want to see Marcin Gortat and Jonas Valanciunas get touches, tune in early. As one of the players who played the lowest percentage of his minutes in the fourth quarter, Gortat is the new Carlos Boozer. But he's more likely to be on the floor for a big possession than Valanciunas, who played just 63 of the Raptors' "clutch" minutes (score within five points in the last five minutes). Raptors coach Dwane Casey typically leans on a frontline of Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson with the game on the line.

5. Which coach needs this series more? Randy Wittman. Both coaches have essentially the same contract, having signed three-year extensions last summer, with the teams holding options for the 2016-17 season. Both have received some criticism as their teams have slid down the standings after a hot start. But it's easier to find fault with Wittman's mid-range-heavy offense than in Casey's bottom-10 defense, which actually ranked in the top-10 last season.

When the Raptors have the ball ...

The Raptors aren't a running team compared to the rest of the league, but they did run a little more this year, taking 13 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, up from 11 percent last season. In the half-court, Lowry-Amir Johnson is their most common pick-and-roll combination, with DeRozan often operating on the weak side, where he can take advantage of a defender trying to close out. When they run plays for DeRozan, it's often off a pin-down screen. He will take a lot of contested jumpers, but also draw a lot of fouls on aggressive defenders.

With Marcin Gortat hanging back on pick-and-rolls, the Wizards protect the paint well. In the three regular season meetings, Toronto attempted just 23 percent of its shots (a rate far below their average) at the basket. But the Wizards will foul, and no Eastern Conference team got to the line more often against Washington than the Raptors did. Bradley Beal will be tasked with keeping DeRozan out of the paint and trying not to bite on his pump fakes.

When the Wizards have the ball ...

Wall will use his speed to try to get buckets in transition off of turnovers and missed shots. In the half-court, we'll see a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls featuring Wall and Gortat. According to SportVU data, no other combination in the Eastern Conference ran more pick-and-rolls this season. Beal gets most of his touches off of pin-down screens and likes to shoot going to his left.

But too much of the Wizards' offense results in mid-range shots. Only the Knicks took a greater percentage of their shots from between the paint and the 3-point line, a big reason why Washington ranked 19th in offensive efficiency.

So if Toronto can slow Wall down, they'll be in decent shape defensively. But only a few teams regressed more on defense than the Raptors did this season. They will hedge hard on pick-and-rolls with everybody but Jonas Valanciunas, which will put pressure on the weak side defenders to help on the roll man and then recover out to shooters. Open shots and lanes to the basket can be had if the Wizards move the ball well.

In the clutch

The Raptors' offense becomes even more guard-heavy down the stretch of close games. Both Lowry and DeRozan will get their opportunities and if Williams has it going, he may have the ball several possessions in a row. Like Beal, he likes to shoot going to his left. Patterson will be on the floor to provide spacing for the guards.

Wall's usage rate goes up and his assist rate goes down in late-and-close situations. So he's more likely to have the ball and more likely to shoot it with the game on the line. He's taken more than twice as many shots than any other Wizard with the score within five points in the last five minutes. The Wizards' bread-and-butter is a high pick-and-roll to try to get Wall going to the basket.

Wild cards

Lou Williams is instant-offense off the bench, the Raptors' third leading scorer, and a favorite to win the Sixth Man Award this season. The Raptors got him in a great trade last summer and he has generally been a positive, but he will shoot them in and out of games. Toronto was 23-9 when Williams shot 45 percent or better and 37-15 when he scored 13 or more points.

The Raptors' pick-and-roll coverage will take the ball out of Wall's hands quite a bit, so the pressure will be on the Wizards' wings to take advantage of the attention paid to their point guard, make shots and make plays. Paul Pierce averaged just 5.6 points on 32 percent shooting over his last 10 games of the regular season, but has made plenty of big shots (including a few against the Raptors in the first round last year) over the years. The two regular season meetings between these teams that were close were the ones where Pierce shot well.

Prediction

The Raptors do have more weapons that they can call on when a primary option is taken away or when somebody's having an off night. But as you might expect in a 4-5 series, these teams are pretty evenly matched. Don't let the season sweep fool you, as Beal played in just one of the three games. If the Raptors are going to win a best-of-7 series for the first time in franchise history, it will take all seven games to do it. Toronto in 7.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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