The Raptors have been so bad for so long that it's still a bit jarring to realize that's no longer the case. Expectations that have been honed and refined over years of failure must now be adjusted; it's no longer reasonable to expect the Raptors will lose in the most excruciating fashion every time they're in a close game. In fact, they're doing the opposite, taking care of business against the teams they're supposed to beat and stealing the occasional game from a superior opponent.
The Raptors enter tonight's game against the Wizards having won six of seven, taking advantage of a soft stretch in the schedule and maintaining the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington is a potential playoff opponent, and the Raptors might want to root for that. They are 3-0 against the Wizards this season, winning by an average of 10 points per game and generally having little trouble with Washington.
This Wizards team will look a bit different this time, though, as Nene will be out for up to six weeks with a sprained MCL. Since acquiring Nene in March 2012, the Wiz are a .500 team with their Brazilian center in the lineup. Without him, they've been awful, posting an 8-34 record. In their first game without Nene, the Wizards beat the woeful Magic at home, 115-106. With no traditional power forward on the roster now, expect the Wizards to play some smallball against Toronto, with either Trevor Ariza or Al Harrington stepping in as a stretch four.
This will also be the first time the Raptors will get a look at Andre Miller in a Wizards uniform. The veteran point guard, acquired by Washington in a deal at the trade deadline, has played three games for his new team. He has yet to play more than 16 minutes with Washington, but is a clear upgrade over Eric Maynor and will be part of an interesting battle at backup point guard with the suddenly surging Greivis Vasquez.
Now, let's talk Raptors. The team is humming along like a jet on cruise control; things may change a bit from night to night, but there is a sense that the Raptors will at least have a chance to win every night. Although his shot has abandoned him of late (39% shooting in February, 28% from three), Kyle Lowry continues to pass well and take a ridiculous amount of charges, including a critical one late on Tuesday against Cleveland. DeMar DeRozan's love affair with the midrange jumper will never die, but it's easier to overlook that when he's passing so well and getting to the line 10 times a game.
Then there are the sophomores, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Ross has played extremely well of late, while Valanciunas has been benched for extended periods of time in favor of Patrick Patterson or even Tyler Hansbrough. It's all part of a second season that hasn't quite lived up to expectations for the Lithuanian center. He's still hesitant and turnover-prone in the post and not much of a help on the defensive end. It's a problem that's getting a bit lost in the team's current run, so keep an eye on the big man and see if he can bounce back with some consistent production.
For the most part the Raptors have taken care of the teams they're "supposed" to beat this season. With Chicago breathing down their necks and Washington only three games behind, this game looms large. Win, and you're four games ahead of the Wizards; lose and it's down to two. If the Raptors hope to make a playoff run this spring, these are the types of games that must be won.