Has 7-time All-Star Joe Johnson finished shooting that last rack of balls? We can move on? Okay, good. Just checking.
After a weekend of festivities in The Big Easy -- a weekend featuring a reformatted (and lame) Dunk Contest, way too much Mount Rushmore talk (MAKE IT STOP!), and an abbreviated Pharrell Williams concert that rescued proceedings -- it's back to the grind for the Raps. After a stretch in which the Raps looked to be getting a little complacent -- and perhaps a little tired -- the team closed out the week prior to the All-Star break with comfortable wins over the Pelicans and Hawks.
Let's hope that Ross, Valanciunas, and DeRozan held themselves back from partying too hard in New Orleans, because the next 6 games for the Raptors -- all very winnable games against Eastern Conference opponents -- are vitally important with regards to creating some separation from the rest of the pack in a very crowded (after Indiana and Miami, at least) playoff picture. If the Raps want to make any noise come playoff time, capturing home-court advantage will be key.
That goal begins afresh tonight as the Raps meet the Washington Wizards for the 3rd time this season -- a side currently sitting 6th in the East, and coming off two close, but disappointing loses prior to the All-Star break. The Raps have had two fairly comfortable wins against the Wizards this season -- albeit they weathered a John Wall explosion in the first game -- but Washington should be raring to go on their home-court tonight.
The Wizards are still an immensely frustrating team, you only have to follow SB Nation's Mike Prada on Twitter to realize that; but they are a team that's improved this season, both in terms of their on-court personnel, and their overall chemistry. A relatively clean bill of health, at least compared to last season, has helped -- Wall and Nene, in particular, have been able to showcase their talents relatively uninterrupted this season.
As things stand the Raps would meet the Wizards in the 3 vs. 6 match-up in the first round of the playoffs. That's a very winnable series for Casey's team; and tonight's match-up, even though it's on the road, is a very winnable game. The Wizards are solid team, but like the rest of the East, outside of the Big 2, they're average -- decent defensively, but below average on offense.
Here are 3 keys to tonight's game for the Raptors:
Turn John Wall into a jump-shooter
John Wall emerged at the back-end of last season as an elite NBA point-guard, and this year he's continued that form and, for the most part, justified his massive contract extension. Wall can get to the line (although not enough relative to his skill-set), he can facilitate, and he might just be the quickest player in the league. But Wall remains a sub-par jump-shooter. The Raptors will need to stay in front of him at all times, while sagging off at the top of the key and above the break. If he makes those 18-footers, than so be it -- the stats say that it's better to let him have that shot, than to overplay him and get burned off the bounce. Wall destroyed the Raptors in the first game of the season series, but the team -- Lowry in particular -- did a much better job against him in the second game. Hopefully it'll be more of the latter tonight.
Attack the rim
Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario , the Wizards big-men, look like strong and imposing rim protectors, but the stats say otherwise. The Wizards rank 20th in opposing field-goal percentage in the restricted area, and the Raps should look to attack them with Jonas and Amir Johnson (hopefully feeling better after the break) rolling hard to the rim off the pick-n-roll, and DeRozan and Lowry driving and attacking the basket.
Take care of the basketball
For the most part the Raps do a good job of taking care of the rock -- according to Hollinger's NBA Team Stats, they rank 8th in turnover ratio, with just 13% of the team's possessions ending in a turnover. The Raps will need to be especially cognizant of taking care of the ball tonight, however. John Wall is currently 5th in the NBA in steals per game (2.04) and the Wizards as a team are currently tied for 3rd in the NBA when it comes to generating turnovers. At times the half-court game can be a slog for the Wizards, so the Raps don't want to make it easy for them by giving the likes of Wall and Bradley Beal opportunities in the transition game.