Toronto (59-23) have set single-season club records for wins in four of their last five seasons, starting with 48 in 2013/14 to the 59 accumulated this season that earned them the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Yet the Raptors have failed to carry that success into the postseason, making two first-round exits before being eliminated by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers the last two years.
A matchup with James potentially awaits in the second round, but the Raptors must first contend with the Wizards (43-39), who swept them in the first round in 2014/15 in the 4 vs 5 matchup. Toronto revamped their offense this season, better using the talents of All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and averaged 111.7 points, nearly five points better than their 2016/17 mark of 106.9 per game.
Coach Dwane Casey also developed a second unit who are among the best in the NBA, and Toronto’s 41.8 points per game from their reserves are the highest of any Eastern Conference playoff team.
Washington are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but inconsistency throughout the season and an injury that sidelined star guard John Wall for two months and until the final two weeks of the season did not help matters.
The Wizards lost 14 of their final 21 games but still have enough backcourt firepower in Wall and leading scorer Bradley Beal to be one of the most dangerous No. 8 seeds in recent memory.
The Wizards also start this series having lost their final six regular-season road games, with three against non-playoff teams. Washington, though, split their two trips to Toronto in 2017/18 and the four games this season, all without the injured Wall.
Three keys to the game
Home-court disadvantage? - What good is having home-court advantage when you fail to protect it in Game 1? That's the question facing the Raptors, who won a club-record 34 games at home this season but have dropped Game 1 at Air Canada Centre to start their last four postseasons and in their last five playoff series overall as part of an 0-9 record in the opening game of a playoff series in club history.
Of the five losses at home to open a postseason series, the Raptors have recovered to win three of those series, but one of the two they didn't was against the Wizards in 2015, something DeRozan remembers all too well.
"The guys that was here three years ago know what it was like to get swept. It wasn’t a great feeling at all," DeRozan told the Toronto Star. "We have another opportunity to go out here and do something we haven’t been able to do over the last few years. That’s to play for a championship."
Can the Wizards punch above their weight? - Much was made about Washington's season-long inconsistency, especially with 17 of their 39 losses coming to teams who will watch the playoffs, but the Wizards also went 9-8 against playoff-bound teams after the All-Star break, playing all but three games without Wall.
That may be why there was an air of confidence about the Wizards after the end of the regular season, with backup point guard Tomas Satoransky telling The Washington Post, "We haven’t played with John against them. We’re not scared. We respect them. There’s some positive aspects from this season."
About that Toronto bench mob - While Casey has mixed and matched players from his first two units, there clearly is something special about his second five of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and C. J. Miles.
In 340 minutes together, that group has outscored opponents by a staggering 17.1 points per 100 possessions among groups who have played at least 200 minutes together. It is also the fifth-best mark of all five-man groups in the NBA among those above that 200-minute threshold.
Matchup to watch
PG John Wall vs PG Kyle Lowry - While the Wizards as a team have a point to prove in this series, facing them is a chance at redemption for Lowry, the Raptors' All-Star point guard. In the first-round sweep at the hands of Washington in 2015,
Lowry had his worst postseason as a starter, averaging 12.8 points while shooting just 31.6 percent overall and 21.7 percent from 3-point range in the four games. And Wall handed him his lunch defensively as he averaged 17.3 points and 12.5 assists in the sweep.
There is something about the Wizards that gets Lowry off his game, even now. He was ejected in the second quarter of the first game for arguing with officials and had a pair of off nights around a 29-point effort in a loss at Washington on February 1.
He averaged 12.8 points and 4.3 assists in the four games but shot just 25 percent (6 for 24) from beyond the arc, well off his season mark of 39.9 percent.
While Wall was a spectator for this season series, he has played well against the Raptors. In three games last season, he averaged 25.0 points and 10.3 assists while shooting 47.3 percent.
If there is something for Toronto to be positive about, it is that Wall has struggled scoring north of the border. He has averaged only 15.6 points while shooting 35.0 percent in his last five games in Toronto, though he has doled out 10.6 assists in that span.
Washington Wizards projected starting lineup
PG - John Wall | SG - Bradley Beal | C - Marcin Gortat | SF - Otto Porter Jr. | PF - Markieff Morris
Toronto Raptors projected starting lineup
PG - Kyle Lowry | SG - DeMar DeRozan | C - Jonas Valanciunas | SF - OG Anunoby | PF - Serge Ibaka
While it may be best to take a wait-and-see approach with Wall for DFS purposes, Beal will have to be considered for use as long as the Wizards are in the postseason. Some of his numbers may drop off with Wall back, but Beal averaged 28.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the four games this season while shooting 15 for 30 from 3-point range and 50 percent overall.
His two best shooting games in the season series came at Toronto, where he totaled 65 points on 27-of-49 shooting, including nine of 15 from beyond the arc. Beal averaged 20.8 points in the first-round sweep of the Raptors in 2015 but made only 38 percent of his shots.
Otto Porter has proven a handful to defend at small forward for the Raptors, who will use both rookie OG Anunoby and Miles against him. Porter scored at least 15 points in all four games this season, averaging 18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 59.2 percent. He also made eight of 15 from 3-point range and recorded a double-double in the February 1 win.
Much the way Beal has flummoxed the Raptors, DeRozan has done likewise to the Wizards. He averaged 26.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in the season series while shooting 48.1 percent.
DeRozan, though, may be better served to stick to his mid-post game since he went two for 17 from 3-point range in the four meetings. He recorded seven steals in the final three games between the teams in 2017/18 and averaged 20.3 points on 40 percent shooting in the 2015 postseason series.
Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has played horribly at home and well on the road versus Washington this season. He totaled ten points and ten rebounds while shooting five of 11 in the two games in Toronto but had 29 points and ten boards while making 12 of 14 shots at Capital One Arena.
The Raptors are listed as eight-point favorites, with the line moving one-half point in Washington's direction since it opened. The Wizards have covered in six of their last eight trips north of the border and looking to extend a trend in which the road teams have covered in five of the last seven meetings.
While the Wizards are 5-11 against the spread in their last 16 games overall and 4-9-1 in their last 14 versus Eastern Conference opponents, they are 9-3 versus the number in their last 12 first-round playoff series games. Washington, though, are also 1-5 against the spread in their last six road games versus teams with an above-.500 record at home and 1-7 against the spread in their last eight on the road.
Toronto went just 2-5-1 against the spread in their last eight home games and 3-10-1 in their last 14 overall. They are just 7-18-1 versus the number in their last 26 first-round playoff games and 1-3-1 in their last five versus Southeast Division teams. The Raptors are also 0-5-1 against the spread in their last six games at Air Canada Centre against teams with a losing road record.
The over/under is 211 points, ticking 1.5 points higher since it opened. The under has trended strongly in this series, hitting eight times in the last 11 meetings overall and 12 of the last 14 occasions in Toronto. It has also posted a 10-3 mark in Toronto's last 13 first-round playoff series games and gone 5-2 in their last seven versus Southeast Division opponents.
The over has gone 6-2-1 in Washington's last nine first-round playoff series games and 9-3 in their last 12 against Atlantic Division rivals. The under, though, is 8-3 in the Wizards' last 11 matchups with above-.500 opponents.
For all the earned platitudes the Raptors were given in their 59-win season, the playoffs is where it all begins for them. Remember, this team could have been blown up after last year's postseason in which James and the Cavaliers steamrolled them in an ugly four-game sweep.
Instead, Casey revamped and re-tooled, embracing the 3-pointer, and developing a bench that was a key component of those 59 victories. Yet advancing in the postseason is about star power more than a competent second five. The Raptors have it in Lowry and DeRozan, both of whom were deserved All-Star selections this season, but the question is whether they are enough to get them to the promised land.
Starting every playoff series in franchise history down 1-0 has made the city of Toronto nervous, and history against Washington only adds to the city's anxieties. The Raptors' strengths are the Wizards' strengths and vice versa, and Toronto needs Lowry to be their on-court leader besides starting their offense.
Washington's confidence is a curiosity factor, though it is understandable given they split against the conference's top team without their best player. But this is still a Wizards team that coach Scott Brooks has called "selfish" as late as the final week of the season and also had been properly scouted by the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference because they did not deviate from the sets they ran without Wall after his return.
The Wizards also have firepower off the bench in Kelly Oubre Jr., who averaged 11.8 points on the season but struggled down the stretch and was held to 9.0 points per game on 24.7 percent shooting in his final seven games.
They will be without Beal's primary backup Jodie Meeks for the postseason after he was given a 25-game ban for violating the league's PED policy, and the Wizards will fill his spot on the roster with veteran Ty Lawson, who played this season with Shandong of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Look for Toronto to be aggressive early, especially on offense, and see whether Wall and the Wizards can take a punch. If the Raptors establish their secondary scorers, especially Valanciunas early, their long Game 1 losing streak will finally end and the city of Toronto can exhale a little. The Raptors will open this series with a 111-102 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and nationally in Canada on SportsNet ONE. It will also be televised locally on NBC Sports Washington D.C. Tip-off time is 5:30 pm EDT.
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