For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Toronto Raptors have set a franchise record for wins. And for the first time in franchise history, they're the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
History came with improvement on both ends of the floor. The Raptors remade their offense, seeing an increase in ball movement and 3-point attempts. On defense, they reduced their opponents' 3-point attempts and defended the rim better than every team but one. Of course, that was the regular season, the playoffs are different, and the Raptors of the last four seasons are Exhibit A in that regard. Over those four years, they've been upset in the first round twice and been pushed aside by LeBron James twice. In each of the last three postseasons, they've seen huge drop-offs in offensive efficiency.
So, no matter how well the Raptors played over the last six months, there was always a "it's the regular season" caveat. And appropriately, their first playoff test comes against one of the teams that upset them in the past. Three years ago, the Washington Wizards swept the Raptors out of the first round. That was a No. 4 vs. No. 5-seed series and this one is No. 1 vs. No. 8. The Wizards have the same core, but underachieved this season, falling to eighth place in the East by losing 14 of their final 21 games. John Wall played in only four of those 21 games and with the talent that they have, the Wizards can beat any team on any given night. But no playoff team needs to find the proverbial switch to flip more than Washington.
3 quick questions and answers
- Should the Raptors be worried about the way they've played over the last four weeks? Not until the next round (unless they lose Game 1 again). The Raptors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers twice as they went 7-6 to close the season, and there was some defensive slippage in that stretch. But all six of those losses were within five points in the last five minutes (though one of the Cleveland losses was only close late because of an inconsequential run). In fact, the Raptors haven't lost a game that wasn't within five points in the last five minutes since Dec. 27.
- What went wrong with the Wizards over those last 21 games? First of all, they didn't have Wall for 17 of them, and the Wall they had in the other four was getting back from a two-month absence. But whether they had Wall or not, bench minutes were a big problem. Over those 21 games, the Wizards were outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in 411 minutes with Otto Porter Jr. the floor. Kelly Oubre Jr., their primary reserve, will go into the playoffs having shot 31 percent (including 10-for-53 from 3-point range) over his last 10 games.
- So the Raptors should feel good about their five-man bench unit? Yes, as long as Fred VanVleet (who suffered a shoulder bruise in the regular season finale) is healthy. That five man unit -- VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl -- outscored opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions in 340 minutes together (the fifth-best mark among all lineups that played at least 200 minutes). Coach Dwane Casey will likely stick to his regular season rotation until an opponent forces him to do otherwise. The Wizards probably aren't that opponent.
The number to know
29% -- The Raptors allowed their opponents to take only 29 percent of their shots from 3-point range. That was the second lowest opponent rate in the league (and the lowest among playoff teams). Their ability to prevent 3-pointers in a season when the league set another record for 3-point volume was the biggest reason they were able to rank as a top-five defensive team for the first time in franchise history. The Wizards ranked 21st in the percentage of their shots that came from beyond the arc, but ranked fourth in 3-point percentage, with Otto Porter Jr. ranking third among individuals. Over the last five seasons, no player has assisted on more 3-pointers than John Wall. If the Raptors can force Porter, Bradley Beal and Jodie Meeks to step inside the arc, they'll be in good shape defensively.
Making the pick
With a core -- led by two All-Star guards -- that came within minutes of the East finals in 2017, the Wizards are the most dangerous No. 8 seed the Eastern Conference has had since the last No. 1 vs. No. 8 upset (2012). In the postseason, they don't have to worry about a bad bench as much as they do in the regular season. But they couldn't have finished the season in a more discouraging fashion and the Raptors are too good. Raptors in 5.