BDL’s 2014-15 Playoff Previews: Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
How They Got Here
• Toronto: The way the Raptors (49-33) sped out of the station fueled by the fiery Kyle Lowry, logging the Eastern Conference’s best record by Christmas, and then sputtered into their fourth-place destination, it was as if Casey Jones high on cocaine — and not a more sobering Dwane Casey — was driving Toronto’s train this season.
With the vast majority of a core that won 48 games together in 2013-14 back to wade through the East’s shallow pool, Toronto seemed poised to emerge matured from a disappointing early exit in their first playoff appearance of the post-Chris Bosh era. Not even a torn tendon in DeMar DeRozan’s left leg, which cost the 2014 All-Star guard a quarter of his season, could derail Lowry, who submitted the first All-Star campaign of his own career and kept the Raptors on track with a 22-7 start.
In his third season, Jonas Valanciunas took another step toward establishing himself as one of the East’s emerging elite centers, averaging 16.5 points, 11.9 boards and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 57.2 percent from the field. Rounding out the frontcourt, Johnsons Amir and James, along with Terrence Ross on the wing, gave Casey a wealth of options to match the NBA’s evolving forward combinations.
Meanwhile, the addition of Sixth Man of the Year contender Lou Williams to a roster already featuring stalwart reserves Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez bolstered a bench that outscored opponents by a league-high 10.4 points per 100 possessions.
Yet, whether by injury or inconsistency, Casey toyed with 15 different starting lineups, none of which solved his team’s defensive (104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and rebounding (73.3 defensive rebound percentage) deficiencies. As the offense slowed from scoring at a ridiculous rate through Dec. 25 (111.7 points per 100 possessions) to merely a top-10 level since (106.0), the Raptors split their final 50 games and came to a resting stop with one more win than last season.
• Washington: The Wizards (46-36) and Raptors took remarkably similar roads to the series, right down to the All-Star bid by point guard John Wall, the injuries that sidelined scoring guard Bradley Beal for 19 games and the second-half swoon.
With their running (Wall) and gunning (Beal) backcourt tandem already in place and Marcin Gortat signed to a long-term extension alongside fellow frontcourt bruiser Nene, the Wizards replaced Trevor Ariza with playoff proven Paul Pierce in hopes his veteran leadership on the wing could exorcise some demons and transform a 2014 Eastern Conference semifinalist into a legit 2015 title contender.
Through the season’s first two months, they lived up to those expectations, posting a 22-9 record by New Year’s Day and keeping pace with the East’s elite by deploying the same stellar defense and middling offense coach Randy Wittman has made his standard.
Then, the volcanic eruption slowed like lava oozing into mediocrity, the dark NBA days of January and February achieving full-scale depression by March, when the Warriors exposed Washington as infighting frauds and Wittman walked out on his team before the final buzzer in back-to-back losses to Golden State and Indiana.
By season’s end, the additions of productive reserves Kris Humphries and Rasual Butler along with the slow development of former No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter had done little to bolster a bench that has ranked among the league’s worst for the past two seasons, but even an underachieving starting five had enough talent to limp its way to a No. 5 seed despite submitting a sub-.500 record (24-26) since Jan. 1.
There is time yet to realize the promise Washington once had, as Pierce’s real value comes in his championship pedigree, but the Wizards have done themselves no favors, regressing toward the mean and setting up a first-round series on the road.
Head to Head
As a member of the Brooklyn Nets in 2013-14, Pierce delivered a dagger in the form of a game-clinching block that eliminated the Raptors in Game 7 of last April’s first-round series, and the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer twisted the knife in a recent ESPN.com interview, telling Jackie MacMullan, “We haven't done particularly well against Toronto, but I don't feel they have the 'It' that makes you worried.” Ouch.
Indeed, the Raptors swept the three-game series between the two teams this season, although the last two meetings were decided in overtime and by one possession, respectively. Lowry’s triple-double and DeRozan’s 25 points delivered a convincing 103-84 win in early November. A balanced effort overcame 54 combined points from Wall and Beal in a 120-116 OT victory at the end of January. Williams’ 27 points off the bench made it a clean sweep in a 95-93 squeaker two weeks later.
All of which led DeRozan, who hit the game-winner over Pierce in their most recent meeting, to fire back at The Truth before the Raptors finally drew the Wizards in the final hours of the regular season: “Paul Pierce has always gotta say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he said. He’d just better hope Chicago wins (against Atlanta) or whatever has got to happen so he won’t see what 'It' is.”
Likely Starting Lineups
For Toronto, Lowry, DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas will form 80 percent of the starting five. Lineups featuring that foursome have only outscored opponents by a scant 2.5 points per 100 possessions, so Casey may continue toying with the fifth and final spot in this series. Nominees for that honor include Ross, Vasquez and James Johnson, each of whom received one start against the Wizards this season.
While Toronto enjoyed the most success against Washington with Ross as the fifth starter, the aforementioned core four have outscored their opponents by 8.3 more points per 100 possessions with James Johnson solidifying the defense this season.
Regardless, the Raptors have arguably been at their best relying heavily on Williams, Patterson and the ever-bruising Tyler Hansbrough in the fourth quarter, so Casey will continue shuffling his deck as scores fluctuate and matchups dictate.
For Washington, the notion that Wall and Beal form the league’s best backcourt, a theory they perpetuated in the preseason, is laughable six months later. Even Pierce agrees, stating in that same ESPN.com article, “Both of those guys have the potential to be great. I love them. But sometimes I’m not sure they realize what it takes.”
Which is not to say they aren’t any good. That young duo along with Pierce, Nene and Gortat have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions while playing the fifth-most minutes (596) of any starting five in the NBA — a respectable margin that puts them on par with the Grizzlies’ most-used quintet out West.
Washington features one of the league’s best facilitators (Wall’s 10 assists per game ranks second only to Chris Paul’s 10.2), a pair of capable low-post scorers (Gortat and Nene shoot a combined 68.3 percent inside of 5 feet) and two of the NBA’s 20 most efficient 3-point shooters (Beal and Pierce are shooting a combined 39.9 percent on 562 attempts). Yet, the Wizards still attempt nearly 30 mid-range jumpers per game — a lack of creativity for which Wittman deserves blame.
Matchups to Watch
• Wall vs. Lowry. Both point guards shot out of a cannon in the early going and shared the starting backcourt for the East in the All-Star Game this past February before cooling off in the second half of the season. If April is any indication, Wall may be on the rebound, averaging 15.4 points and 13.4 assists in five games this month, and how Lowry answers that call might ultimately decide the series.
• Wittman vs. his Wizards. With miserable stops in Cleveland and Minnesota on his résumé, Wittman owned a .336 career win percentage and had never appeared in the playoffs before the Wizards made their run to the conference semifinals last year. His job security depends heavily on how Washington performs in his second postseason, but will his players put in the effort to make the relationship work?
• Bench press. The Wizards can cast a more potent starting lineup, and that’s a huge advantage as teams lean more heavily on their best five-man unit in the playoffs. But the energy boost provided by Toronto’s vastly superior bench could swing the series as it stretches into six or seven games and the minutes start taxing tired legs.
How Toronto Could Win
Lowry shifts back into fifth gear to steer the starters as he did to begin the year, Williams provides the firepower to fuel the bench as he has all season, and Casey strikes a balance between both units to play chess to Wittman’s checkers.
How Washington Could Win
Wall and Beal choose great over good, Pierce channels his cold-blooded younger self, the Wizards defend as they should and they flip the switch, rallying either around or against their coach in time to save their sinking season.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 3 out of 10. Given that these two teams have ranked a hair below the league’s average net rating since the calendar turned, it’s hard to get too excited about a couple of apparent Eastern Conference also-rans, but Wall’s explosiveness colliding with Lowry’s ferociousness and the recent war of wards between Pierce and DeRozan add an ounce of intrigue.
Prediction: Wizards in 7.
Other Ball Don’t Lie 2014-15 First Round Playoff Previews
1. Atlanta Hawks vs. 8. Brooklyn Nets, by Kelly Dwyer
2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 7. Boston Celtics, by Dan Devine
3. Chicago Bulls vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks, by Eric Freeman
4. Toronto Raptors vs. 5. Washington Wizards, by Ben Rohrbach
1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. New Orleans Pelicans, by Eric Freeman
2. Houston Rockets vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks, by Ben Rohrbach
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. San Antonio Spurs, by Kelly Dwyer
4. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 5. Memphis Grizzlies, by Dan Devine
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is a contributor for Ball Don't Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach