Don't look now, but the Toronto Raptors are one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
With four straight wins in the bag, the 15-15 Raptors sit comfortably atop the Atlantic Division. On Friday, Toronto has the opportunity to extend that lead against another team still battling to reach the .500 mark in the Washington Wizards.
The last time these two teams faced off, the Raptors took a ten-point victory at the Air Canada Centre. John Wall and Bradley Beal were solid for the Wizards, but the Raptors were able to shut down the rest of Washington's offensive attack.
Things may be different this time around at the Verizon Center.
The Wizards have struggled at home recently, scoring just 92.0 per contest and shooting 27.8 percent from three-point range in their last five games at home. Toronto conversely, has held three of it's last four opponents to 83 or less points.
But this could still be a potential trap game for the Raptors. Having won big games recently against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, it seems like the Raptors may be due for a letdown -- and a loss to the Wizards would be a significant letdown considering Toronto's tough stretch of games they are currently playing.
After the game in Washington -- where the Raptors have lost four of their last five meetings with the Wizards -- they move on to play the Heat and Pacers on the road before returning home to take on the Detroit Pistons.
In short: this is a game that the Raptors should, and sort of need to get.
As usual, here are the keys to the game:
Slow John Wall
Obviously this is easier said than done. The last time these two teams met, Wall lit up the Raptors for 37 points but he got very little help from the rest of his teammates.
Wall remains one of the best point guards in the league right now and perhaps the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. He is averaging a career-best 20.2 points and 8.9 assists and is the driving force behind the Wizards push to .500.
The Raptors are going to be hard pressed to repeat their previous performance against Washington, making it that much more important to stop the Wizard's offence at the point of attack, and that starts with John Wall.
Kyle Lowry Over Everything
Kyle Lowry has been playing out of his mind of late. He has been the unquestioned leader of the Raptors offence, whether it be taking charge and running the team -- he had a season-high 14 assists in Toronto's win over the Pacers on Wednesday -- or carrying the scoring load, he has been ready to do it. In the wake of the Rudy Gay trade, he has emerged as a leader and, dare I say, has become one of the most valuable players on the Raptors roster.
Lowry has also strangely been a much better and more efficient scorer on the road this season. In 16 road games, he is averaging 17.1 points, 6.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, while shooting almost 45 percent from the floor and 42 percent from beyond the arc. At home, Lowry is scoring 14 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting from the floor and 31 percent from three.
Oh, and Toronto is also a much better team on the road at 9-7. They are just 6-8 at home.
Team defence has been paramount for the Raptors of late. Their tough perimeter D and strong defensive rotations -- including Lowry taking an inhuman amount of charges -- is, along with their three-point shooting and passing, what has fuelled this recent winning streak.
It was on display in their last meeting with Wizards. So they have proven they can do it before and they will need to once again put in a strong effort on that end of the floor if they are going to pull out a victory in Washngton.