Question #1: What has been the reason for Washington's struggles since the New Year?
Like the Raptors, I think part of it has been regression to the mean. The Wizards were never as good as their record would suggest early in the season, but their decline was sharper than most expected.
The biggest issue in February and March, when the Wizards cratered, was John Wall's health. He picked up a lot of injuries that weren't bad enough to sideline him, but just annoying enough to hamper his output. And once Wall started to slump, the Wizards showed they really didn't have another option. The roster has been structured to complement Wall, so when he struggles, everything else falls to pieces. Thankfully (from Washington's perspective), he's finally gotten some rest of late, so he'll be as fresh as he's been this year heading into this series.
The other issue has been the offense in general. The system the team is running just hasn't maximized the strengths of anyone. Wall doesn't get enough space to operate as effectively as he could. Beal takes too many mid-range shots and they run too many ineffective post-ups for Nene. The Wizards have to have amazing shooting nights to compensate for all the possessions they waste.
Question #2: What are your thoughts on Paul Pierce playing the four against Toronto like he did for Brooklyn last year? Is that a look you'd like to see Randy Wittman go with?
I love the idea of Pierce at the four. When the Wizards signed him over the summer, his ability to play in that role was one of the things that excited most fans, because the Wizards don't have a true stretch four. The thing is, Randy Wittman has been very reluctant to use him in that role this season.
Other than some spot duty here and there when Kris Humphries was injured, Pierce has been used almost exclusively at the three in Washington. For a team as desperate for spacing as the Wizards, it's been upsetting he hasn't been used as a stretch four more this season.
Our hope is that Wittman has kept him off stretch four duty to avoid extra wear and tear during the regular season to save him for situations just like this, where he could wreak some havoc. If so, Pierce could be the ace up the Wizards' sleeve in this series.
If they keep him at small forward all series long ... let's just not talk about that.
Question #3: It's well documented that Paul Pierce is a tormentor of the Raptors and their fans. But which Raptors player scares you the most going into this series and why?
With all due respect to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the player who scares most Wizards fans the most is Lou Williams. Wizards fans have a term for players who aren't quite All Star caliber but have a knack for killing it when they play Washington: Wizard Killer. And if we ever get around to building a Wizard Killer Hall of Fame, he'll be a first ballot inductee, alongside Jarrett Jack.
Over his career, Lou Williams has a true shooting percentage of 60.4 percent against Washington, and given the current state of the Wizards' roster, I wouldn't be shocked if he boosts those percentages in the playoffs. Defensively, the only guy I'd feel good with guarding Williams well is Garrett Temple, but it looks like he'll probably miss the whole first round with his hamstring injury, so no luck there. With Temple out, the Wizards are going to be especially diligent with their help defense to bait Williams into some bad shots because otherwise, it's going to be tough to match his production off the bench.
Question #4: Aside from John Wall, who is the member of the Wizards that you think needs to stand out most, and why?
The Wizards need Bradley Beal to be effective to have a shot here. He's the only other player to alleviate some pressure off of Wall to create all of the offense. Last year, he had a big breakout against the Bulls and Pacers, but has regressed a bit during the regular season. If he can get back to being more aggressive at taking it to the rim, it adds a new dynamic to the offense that makes the Wizards much more effective.
Question #5: What is your prediction for the series?
We're in for a long series. Both teams have some great strengths, but also have some unavoidable flaws. Because of that, I can't see either pulling away and ending this series early. But the longer the series goes on, the more that plays into the Raptors' hands. While I'm confident in the Wizards' abilities to perform well on the road, like they did in last year's playoffs, I just can't see the Raptors losing a Game 7 on their home floor two years in a row.