It's safe to say that we did not expect to be here. This version of the Raptors was supposed to be ready for the crucible of the playoffs. Despite staggering into the post-season, Toronto looked no worse than the Washington Wizards, a team that had been in a sad slide of its own. They had home court advantage and and an existing competitive edge supported by recent history. The Raptors were supposed to win.
But it hasn't gone that way. Now the Raptors are looking at 0-2 setback as the series tips-off in Washington. So, it's time to ask some questions before Game 3.
1) Should the Raptors look to involve Jonas Valanciunas more?
In Games 1 and 2, the big Lithuanian played 24 and 29 minutes, respectively. Valanciunas' offense was fairly anemic in that first game, with only six points on 3-for-7 shooting, but started to get going in Game 2 with 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting (to go with 10 rebounds). With the continued shooting woes of Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Terrence Ross and Lou Williams (none have really consistently played well), it feels fair to wonder if Jonas is the answer here.
Now, caveats. While Washington is a big team with Nene and Marcin Gortat up front -- they've been dominating the rebounding battle -- they can employ an assortment of small ball lineups (with Paul Pierce at the 4, or even with Drew Gooden as some sort of stretch-PF monstrosity). This is to say nothing of the Wizards' pick-and-roll power whenever John Wall picks up steam. All of this creates a problem for Valanciunas. He's not the smartest or quickest defender, and can't be counted on to successfully wall off the paint from perimeter penetration. In addition, despite his solid rebounding numbers, he's had trouble (along with Amir Johnson and others) with keeping the Wizards off the offensive glass.
But here's the rub: Valanciunas may be the difference maker on offense if the Raptors' perimeter based attack continues to come up short. So, do you live with Valanciunas' defensive deficiencies with the hopes he can power the offense?
2) What role should Greivis Vasquez have?
Greivis Vasquez is not a good defensive player. The Wizards have figured this out and gone out of their way -- especially in Game 2 -- to blow past him at every opportunity. His offense, meanwhile, outside of a couple of big threes in Game 1, is basically gone. And playmaking? Right now, DeMar DeRozan is leading the team in assists in this series, with 13 to Vasquez's (and Lowry's) eight.
This one is a simple question: should Vasquez be out there at all? It's clear he can't defend anyone, the Wizards have largely hounded him out of his offensive comfort zone, and there's a potential that (small sample size in Game 2 notwithstanding) a player like James Johnson may be more useful overall. (Presumably Williams plays more of a PG facilitator role in this scenario.) Yes, it should be noted that Vasquez' playing time has increased because of Lowry's implosion, but with perimeter minutes at an apparent premium, maybe it's worth a look into diminishing Vasquez' role.
3) Does Kyle Lowry have anything left in the tank?
It pains me to write this but here goes: the Raptors can't beat the Wizards with this Kyle Lowry. In fact, if (but really, when) the Raptors lose this series, the blame can most squarely be put at Lowry's feet. It's sad to say this because Lowry has been nothing if not tireless, relentless and full of heart for Toronto the entire season; he'll never be accused of dogging it. I don't know if it's a combination of exhaustion, frustration or injury, but Lowry just does not look like himself right now. He can't hit threes, he can't seem to get any solid drives going, and he can't stop John Wall on the perimeter (admittedly, few can).
In the three regular season games this year against the Wizards, Lowry's production steadily tailed off. He had a triple-double first, then a solid scoring game of 23 points second, and then an unremarkable third game. His playoff performances have been terrible. Should we have seen this coming? Are his injuries worse than we know? Is he sick?
Maybe Lowry really just needs a vacation. Unfortunately, with the Raps playing the way they've been playing, the break may come sooner than any of us expected.