NBA Playoffs Preview: Raptors vs. Wizards

The Raptors and Wizards are two teams that peaked early and struggled later in the season. Which team still has "it" in them?

There is perhaps no better matchup for both of these teams than each other. Both squads started the year on top of the world, but sputtered out to an alarming degree as the season went on.

The Toronto Raptors came out of the All-Star break on February 20th and tallied a decisive road win against the East-leading Atlanta Hawks to move to 37-17. Back then, they looked like a convincing 2-seed and perhaps a team that could contend in the Eastern Conference. Since that time, they've gone 12-16 and their horrible defense makes them look more like a team destined to fail and fall early than a realistic playoff contender. On the season as a whole, they may have the league's fourth-best Offensive Rating at 111.0 (second in the East), according to our Power Rankings, but their 107.7 Defensive Rating just so happens to be the worst of any playoff team in either conference (25th overall).

Luckily for the Raptors, they've drawn a Washington Wizards squad that has nosedived just as hard. Back on January 27th, the Wizards moved to 31-15 and were right there with the Raptors as a potential 2-seed. They then went on to lose 11 of their next 13 and go 15-26 to end the season. Whereas the bottom fell out of the Raptors on defense, the Wizards were flat out terrible on offense. In fact, on the season as whole, they are the second-worst playoff team on that end with an Offensive Rating of 103.7, according to our numbers (22nd overall). On the other hand, just like the Raptors cover up glaring deficiencies on one end by being pretty excellent on the other, the Wizards have the league's fifth-best defense with a Defensive Rating of 103.0.

So, what happens when a team that fills it up on one end, but can't stop anyone on the other faces a team that defends with the best of them, but can't buy a bucket? Well, we're about to find out.

Toronto Raptors (4)

Record: 49-33
nERD: 58.2
Championship Odds: 3.5%

Washington Wizards (5)

Record: 46-36
nERD: 53.9
Championship Odds: 1.9%

Regular Season Series - Raptors 3, Wizards 0

The Raptors swept the Wizards this season, but the games were closer than that record suggests. After winning the first game of the season series at home in a relative blowout back in November, the Raptors needed overtime to bury the Wizards at the end of January in Washington and only eked them out by two points a couple weeks later back in Toronto. The Raptors can take the confidence that a series sweep affords them into this first-round matchup, but they certainly can't get complacent after the last two games came down to the proverbial wire.

For the Raptors, the usual suspects played well over those three games, with DeMar DeRozan averaging 21.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per contest, while hitting 86.7% of his whopping 10.0 free throw attempts, and Kyle Lowry averaging 16.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 triples per contest, while shooting 45.0% from the field. The x-factor for the Raptors in those games, though, was Lou Williams, who scored 19.7 points in a mere 26.5 minutes per game, while shooting 48.8% from the field and 38.9% from long range. Watch for the potential Sixth Man of the Year to have a big impact off the bench in this series.

As for the Wizards, their attack was a bit more balanced, but John Wall led the way with 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game, but only shot 40.9% from the field and an ugly 16.7% from long range on 4.0 attempts per contest. Bradley Beal's availability in this series could be huge for the Wizards though, as he scored 26 points on 9 for 17 shooting (including 5 for 10 from downtown) in the lone game of the series he played in (the overtime loss in January).

How the Raptors Can Win

The major advantage for the Raptors in this series is their bench. Both starting lineups are strong pound-for-pound, but the Raptors' bench is leagues better than the Wizards'. The Raptors have the Association's third-highest scoring bench at 19.4 points per 48 minutes, whereas the Wizards come in 17th at 17.2. That doesn't seem like much of a difference, but it becomes a bit clearer when you consider that the Raptors' complete bench unit of Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, James Johnson, Patrick Patterson, and Tyler Hansbrough has a +17.7 Net Rating in 229 minutes together this season, while the Wizards' don't even have a single lineup combination that has reached that height in 50 or more minutes played. If the Raptors' starters can keep pace with the Wizards', Toronto's bench should have a field day against the likes of Rasual Butler, Otto Porter, and Kris Humphries.

Raptors Player to Watch - Jonas Valanciunas

The play of the Raptors' two All-Stars of the last two seasons, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, will obviously determine how far Toronto goes in this year's playoffs, but the development of Jonas Valanciunas has been one of the more interesting stories out of Toronto this year and his impact in this series could be a deciding factor. On the advanced side of things, JV looks like he's becoming a star, placing 13th in the Association in Win Shares per 48 Minutes (.189) and 17th in our Player Power Rankings with a nERD of 8.0. Despite that, he only plays 26.2 minutes per game, and barely sniffs the fourth quarter in close games. He's only even entered during the final frame for the Raptors in 57 of his 80 games played, and in those he averaged a mere 5.1 minutes (10th on the team, less than Chuck Hayes when he plays, and only 20 total minutes more than Tyler Hansbrough).

But the Raptors will need Valanciunas to come up big to really stay competitive in this series. He was rendered basically useless in the season series between the two teams, averaging 7.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in only 20.4 minutes per contest. Yes, the Raps still won all three without him, but the Wizards are going to pack the paint on the defensive end with Marcin Gortat and Nene and slow the game down for playoff basketball. If JV can be effective on offense, crash the boards, and get those two in foul trouble, it'll mean good things for the Raptors. Of course, he'll need to stay out of foul trouble himself and earn the trust of coach Dwane Casey to do so.

How the Wizards Can Win

The Wizards can win this series if they stay away from long twos. Of all 16 playoff teams, the Wiz shoot the most mid-range jumpers per game at 28.9 and only connect on 39.7% of them. Wizards coach Randy Wittman is very outspoken about his defiance of analytics, but this is just a reminder that easy shots close to the basket are worth just as many points as those analytic-killing jumpers and threes are worth 50% more! When you have two big guys in Gortat and Nene down low that shoot over 50.0% from the field, John Wall as one of the most dangerous and effective drivers in the league (for both scoring and dishing), and long-range bombers like Beal and Paul Pierce lurking in the corners, it's basically irresponsible to take the least efficient shot on the floor that often just to prove a point. Especially when your team is only 21st in the league in catch-and-shoot Effective Field Goal Percentage (49.5%) and 24th on pull-ups (38.6%).

As a change of philosophy probably isn't coming overnight, there's a better chance that a Washington win would probably come down to rebounding. The Wizards are the fourth-best playoff team in rebounding (44.7 per game), while the Raptors are the second-worst (41.5). When it comes to the offensive glass, the difference is especially glaring, as the Raptors give up the third-highest average of second chance points per game (14.2) in the entire Association. The battle of the boards could very well determine this series and, in that respect, the Wizards have the upper hand.

Wizards Player to Watch - Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce is a certified Raptor killer. In last year's playoffs, as part of the Brooklyn Nets, he hit a crippling last-minute dagger in Game 1 to bury the Raptors at home, then blocked Kyle Lowry's buzzer-beater in Game 7 to seal the deal. Considering Pierce has always talked trash as well as he's played the game of basketball, it's no surprise that he's out there taking shots again in advance of this series. In a recent interview with ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, Pierce said, "We haven't done particularly well against Toronto, but I don't feel they have the 'It' that makes you worried."

That's some bulletin board material if there ever was any, but a big thing is that he's right. The Raptors have never won a seven-game series in their 20-year existence and the more-experienced Nets were able to upset them last season, just as Pierce's Wizards are prime candidates to so again this year. The Raptors' starting lineup has only 59 games of playoff experience, compared to the Wizards' 281 (per TSN's Josh Lewenberg), so that could certainly come into play in this series.

And even if Pierce is now 37 and averaging a career-low 11.9 points per contest, he still managed to put up 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game against the Raps this season, while shooting 48.5% from the field and 40.0% from long range. He might not make the same impact as John Wall or Bradley Beal overall, but you'd better believe that he plans on backing his pre-series words up with a few huge moments in late-game situations.

Series Prediction

This should be a tight series and it'll likely come down to which team overcomes their most obvious deficiencies. If the Raptors can tighten up their defense and get important stops when it counts, their offense should carry them to victory. If the Wizards manage to get hot on offense and continue their lockdown ways on D, they could very well come out on top. Since the Raptors are the home team, Washington is a lousy 17-24 on the road (worse than any other playoff team), and I'm an unabashed Canadian homer, I pick the Raptors to #WeTheNorth the crap out of this series. Luckily, our algorithms agree with me.

According to our algorithms: Raptors are 58.54% favorites.

My final prediction: Raptors in seven.