With just a quarter of the season left, the Raptors begin their most important stretch of play tonight at home against their (kind of) rival, the Washington Wizards.
I’m not sure what came as a bigger surprise over the past couple of nights — the Oscars flipping the script, or Kyle Lowry’s “day-to-day” injury turning into a potential season-ending surgery. Okay, probably the former, but if you are a hoops fan (and a Raps fan at that) then you probably felt the same kick in the groin that the cast and crew of La La Land felt on Sunday night.
Well, here we are. No more LowryLand (for now) but the Raptors have gone 3-0 in his absence, including a massive win at home against the Celtics on Friday night. Serge Ibaka and P.J Tucker have fit in quite seamlessly on the defensive end, and are slowly but surely figuring out their spacing on offense.
With John Wall and the Wizards in town tonight to kick off the first game of a crucial home-and-home series between these two top tier Eastern Conference opponents, the Raptors will have to bring that new found defensive intensity to the table. The Wizards made an essential move to bolster their lonely bench in acquiring scoring threat Bojan Bogdanovic from the Brooklyn Nets, but are 1-2 since the shakeup.
Despite being swept by Washington in the 2015 post-season (I still don’t know how that happened), the Raptors have taken eight straight regular season contests over the Wizards and have won twelve of thirteen dating back to the 2012-13 season. In the first and only meeting of the season thus far, the Raptors came out on top 113-103 at the Verizon Center in Washington — one of only eight home losses suffered by the Wizards this season.
The good news for the Raps is that the Wizards had to play the Warriors last night and had to immediately get onto a plane to Toronto after the game. The bad news for the Raptors is that the Wizards beat the Warriors last night and are probably feeling better than ever.
Here are a few things to think about and watch for in tonight’s contest:
DeRozan vs. Beal
These hyper-offensive two-guards will square off tonight in what will be a battle that goes a long way in deciding the outcome of the war. DeMar DeRozan has accepted the challenge of carrying the Raps on his back with Lowry sidelined and is averaging just over 37 points per-game on 51% shooting in his absence. At MSG on Monday night, DeRozan thrived under the dim lights, scoring the Raptors final 12 points, including the game winner with 1.9 seconds to play.
Bradley Beal on the other hand has finally been able to stay out of the trainers room and on the basketball court. After missing a combined 46 games over the past two seasons, Beal is finally poised to complete the first healthy season of his young career. February was far and away the best month of the season for Beal, averaging a season high in minutes (36.3), field goal efficiency (53%), three-pint efficiency (46%) and scoring (25.6 per-game)
The Price is Wright
The injury to Lowry comes as a blessing in disguise to second year guard Delon Wright, who has missed the majority of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. Wright is a smart, gritty and over-sized point guard at 6’5’’ inches, making life difficult for opposing point guards at both ends of the floor — particularly on defense.
Wright was given the Bob Cousy Award in 2015 as NCAA’s best point-guard and now more than ever, gets to show us why. So far the Wright-Joseph tandem at point-guard has gone quite well as we are even seeing a more aggressive and confident side of Cory Joseph. Since returning to the Raptors lineup five games ago, Wright has helped stabilize the defense in the backcourt.
With Wright on the court, the Raptors defensive rating drops to 95.7, compared to 105.9 with him off the court. Yes, five games is a small sample size, but Wright continues to impress and will have another opportunity tonight, going toe-to-toe with one of the NBA’s most elite point-guards in John Wall.
The Three Seed Is More Than Just a Number
With the playoffs commencing in just over six weeks, this home-and-home series with the Wizards is critical. As of right now, the Wizards sit at 35-23 (.603%) and the Raptors at 36-24 (.600%), giving the Wizards the slight edge in the standings. Yes, both teams are in line for home court advantage, but that’s not the point. The three and four seeds are more than just numbers and here’s why.
The NBA playoffs follow a fixed bracket in which the winner of the one seed and the eight seed, take on the winner of the four seed and the five seed and the winner of three versus six, takes on two or seven. Do you see where this is going? If the Raptors come in fourth and win their first round series, they get a date with LeBron James one round earlier than would be ideal. LeBron is like Bowser from Super Mario: you get through all of the other bosses and there he is waiting at the finish line, ready to destroy whatever is in his path. Get that three seed Raptors!
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:30pm EST