As the Raptors have become ascendant over the last two weeks, it's easy to forget how interesting the picture is in the rest of the Eastern Conference. Yes, I can officially refer to them as "the rest of" now; Toronto is 3.5 games ahead of third-place Chicago, who begin a long parade of teams that stretch back to 12th in the conference. In the thick of that is Washington, who as of me writing this, are at a dead heat with New York, Charlotte, and Orlando on the very bubble of the playoff picture. Not exactly where we expected this team to be on opening day.
Also surprising is the Raptors' continued regular season success against the Wizards, especially when you consider how thoroughly beaten they were in last year's first round series. Toronto has won six straight regular season games against Washington, and will go for a season sweep in two straight years tonight as they host John Wall and company. They'll also, of course, be going for nine straight wins overall, which would tie a franchise record set in 2002. Here's what to watch for.
The DeRozan Effect
It's no secret that DeMar DeRozan has been playing some of his best basketball this season, with some of his biggest success coming against the Wizards. DeRozan dropped a season high 35 points the last time these two teams played on January 8, 21 of those coming in the second half. Though the Wizards have defenders like Otto Porter, Jr. and Garrett Temple with some size, this has become less of an issue as DeRozan has improved his handle and craftiness in getting to the net. His improved stroke from outside hasn't hurt either: DeMar is 13-for-26 on 3-point shots this month.
Lowry and Wall
In basketball, you either believe in invented narratives or you don't. While it hasn't been apparent on the court in some time, there is always going to be an interesting duel when two top-flight point guards go against each other. Add in that Lowry is continuing as an Eastern Conference starter and Wall is not, and you might have the makings of a real individual rivalry.
Narratives aside, with Lowry averaging a career-high 20.7 points per game while shooting 38.3% from long range, he's currently the point guard to aim for. It'll again be interesting to see if John Wall can get the support he needs to make the game interesting.
Keep Playing the Schedule
Though Detroit and New York present the dangers of a trap game, this matchup against the Wizards seems like the only remaining test standing between the Raptors and an undefeated home stand. As the Cavaliers have lost badly to the Bulls and scraped by the Timberwolves, the door seems at least slightly ajar for Toronto to threaten the conference's best team as we inch closer to All-Star Break. Who knows, if they can overtake Cleveland before Sunday (highly unlikely), maybe they can get a deserving coach in to lead the Eastern squad.
Where To Watch: TSN National and TSN 4K, 7:30 p.m. EST