TORONTO — The Washington Wizards won only four more times than they lost this season. They were middle of the pack in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, while their net rating was a meagre 0.7. That’s how you end up just clearing the playoff cutoff as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.
On paper, the Toronto Raptors are a massive mismatch. The Raptors were third in the NBA with a 7.6 net rating, the only team in basketball to finish top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Toronto is deeper, healthier, and won at a nearly 20 per cent-higher clip during the regular season. The Raptors should win this first-round series — full stop.
But there’s a reason Washington was a trendy pre-season pick to be a top-four team in the conference, starting with its collection of individually good players. If anything, the Wizards as a whole have been something less than the sum of their parts. Or at least what you’d expect them to be.
“They’re talented,” said Raptors star DeMar DeRozan. “They have a lot of key players — they’re still a dangerous team. Just because they’re an eighth seed, we’re not going to look at them like they’re an eighth seed. Because we understand what this team is capable of.”
So, let’s take a look at all those key pieces — and how the Raptors will try to counter them beginning Saturday evening.
There is the obvious concern of John Wall, the always-dangerous playmaker who missed half the season due to a left knee issue. Wall scores plenty on his own, and has been accused of playing selfishly at times, but his speed and decision-making also makes those operating around him better, as he draws defensive help and opens up opportunities elsewhere on the floor.
That’s important for both Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, who carried much of the offensive weight during Wall’s lengthy absence this year, and should stand to benefit from having their point guard back on the floor facilitating. It will be Kyle Lowry’s job to contain Wall all series long, while DeRozan will likely start on Porter, who isn’t as defensively demanding a cover as Beal.
What Toronto does with Beal will be interesting to see. He’s Washington’s biggest threat from distance, but he’s also dangerous off the dribble, and led the Wizards in points in the paint when Wall was out. His cover needs to be able to protect the perimeter, fight through screens, and scramble in transition.
You’ll likely see some combination of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam trying to contain Beal initially. Delon Wright’s length makes him an option as well and, in case of emergency, there’s always Norman Powell, who has bailed the Raptors out of a tough spot in the playoffs before.
Casey likes to ride the hot hand defensively, which lends some fluidity to this matchup. But Anunoby’s played strong defensively of late, and considering Beal’s quickness, he’s likely to start the rookie on him at first and lean on some youthful exuberance.
“You have to be prepared for their speed,” Casey said. “Whether it’s Wall’s speed, Beal’s speed — they’re coming off there at 100 miles an hour.”
Meanwhile, the power forward competition between Serge Ibaka and Markieff Morris will be a fun one to watch, and the odds of either player escaping the series without a technical foul (Morris had 13 this season; Ibaka, seven) are slim. Particularly as Casey is singling out Ibaka as a player he’d like to see establishing a physical tone early in the series.
“Serge can really be a big positive help to us on the boards, using his size, using his athleticism,” Casey said. “It’s going to be a physical battle. We’ve gone spurts this year being a physical team offensively and defensively. But Serge can really give us that because he’s one of our bigger, stronger, athletic bigs.”
Then there’s the battle down low between Marcin Gortat and Jonas Valanciunas. Gortat profiles as the type of slow, stay-at-home centre Valanciunas generally performs well against. But, for one reason or another, Gortat has actually gotten the better of the matchup this season, with a plus-16 night and a double-double when the two teams played in December, and a plus-11 performance in a Raptors win this March.
Meanwhile, two of Valanciunas’s worst seven nights of the season by plus-minus have come against Washington, and three of his worst 15. And it’s not like Valanciunas was a big factor in the fourth meeting, as he finished a plus-4. Over the four games, Gortat out-rebounded Valanciunas 39-20. The Raptors were held to 36 rebounds or less only 11 times this season — three of them against the Wizards.
This is not to mention the things Gortat does off the ball. He’s led the NBA each of the last two seasons in screen assists, which speaks to his ability to create opportunities for teammates not only in set plays, but also in transition. Considering both the Raptors and Wizards like to feed their centres early in games, the influence of this matchup is likely flying under the radar.
“Gortat is one of the best irritators, agitators in the game as far as his screening and holding and grabbing and creating a lane for everyone else,” Casey said. “Now, you have to commit two to him. Now, there goes a guy back-cutting off him. So, we have to show our hands and keep our hands free around him because he’s one of the best in the league at utilizing his body and his screening ability to create lanes for other people.”
It’s not particularly provocative to say the Raptors should have a massive advantage when it comes to bench play in this series. Toronto’s bench was the best in the league, but the Wizards aren’t without strong secondary players themselves.
Tomas Satoransky is the type of high-effort, sneaky-efficient player Raptors fans are probably going to be sick of seeing make smart, useful plays a couple games into this series. At 6-7, he’s an unusually long point guard who can serve as a wing player in certain lineups as well, defending multiple positions and hitting the odd three when he’s left open. His 61.5 true shooting percentage led the Wizards this season, and his 58.5 effective field-goal percentage was second to only Mike Scott.
“We’ll have to make sure we have the right matchups on Satoransky, who is an unnoticed player they have that people don’t respect,” Casey said. “People in the basketball world respect what he brings to the table — his intelligence, his size, his ability to shoot the ball, and also his ability to defend with his size.”
Kelly Oubre will also play a big role off the bench, and, depending on whether or not his shot is falling, could be influential late in games, an area of weakness thus far for the Wizards, who finished the season with bottom-10 offensive and defensive ratings in the fourth quarter. Beal is the guy for Washington in clutch situations. And Porter’s next up. But Oubre’s shown he can make big shots, as well.
“Oubre has been playing really well for them,” Casey said. “He’s an excellent stand-still corner shooter that is underestimated. With Wall back, he gets in the paint and creates and looks to find him. Those guys off the bench are a problem for us.”
And, finally, there’s Scott (currently in the concussion protocol, it should be noted), who played a big factor in Washington’s last win over Toronto in February, when he scored 14 on 6-of-9 shooting. He was one of the Wizards’ few consistent contributors as they dropped game after game down the stretch, scoring double figures in seven of Washington’s final 9 games.
And if a secondary player like Porter or Oubre got hot from distance and had a game, would anyone be surprised? Just two nights ago, the Raptors let Wayne Ellington hit eight three-pointers and score a season-high 32 off the bench. The Wizards don’t shoot a ton of threes, placing 23rd in the NBA with 26.5 attempted per game. But they make the most of them, converting at a 37.5 per cent clip, tied for third-best in the league.
“You still have to respect their three-point shot,” Casey said. “That’s what you worry about — making sure you protect the paint but still get to the shooters. They’ve got some guys who can make some tough shots, so they’re a little unconventional from that standpoint.”
Clearly, there are a lot of ways the Wizards can hurt the Raptors, despite the vast statistical discrepancy between the two teams this season. The issue all year is that Washington has had trouble bringing its many talented parts together into a successful whole. Whether or not that changes this weekend is anyone’s guess. The Raptors hope is that if they thoroughly prepare, and do what they do best, it won’t matter.
“It’s a great challenge. It’s what you play all season for — to be in these moments and play against the best teams in the post-season,” DeRozan said. “But, at the end of the day, you understand once you get to these moments, it doesn’t matter who you play as long as you bring your A-game. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against — you’re going to have to compete with somebody. It’s not like you’re going get a warmup game versus some kids. You’ve got to be ready.”