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The Raptors meet the confident Wizards, where depth will decide the series

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Here’s what to watch for as the Raptors take on the Wizards, a first round matchup that promises backcourt fireworks (and, hopefully, some redemption).

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Anxiety is a sign of the times for the Raptors faithful. In a season where Toronto’s won 59 games and shocked many, it only makes sense that they’ve lined up arguably the hardest playoff path possible. Admit it, you feed off these masochist narratives. With Washington, Cleveland, and Philadelphia the most likely road to the Finals, it’ll be, in a perfect world, two months of winning basketball games and exorcising prior traumas.

One of the most memorable of those was in 2015, when a slipping Raptors team hit rock bottom in the first round of the playoffs. A four-seed playing the fifth-seeded Wizards, Toronto got swept in humiliating fashion — complete with Paul Pierce nutmegging the team in post-game interviews over having “it”.

So, three years later, it feels poetic that most of that 2015 Washington team returns to play Toronto in the first round, experiencing significant slippage of their own. The Wizards stumble into the post-season with just three wins in their last 12 games. From pre All-Star to post All-Star, they’ve gone from 11th to 20th in offense and 12th to 18th in defense. John Wall missing all but four games since January 27 is part of that, but it’s not the whole story.

This Wizards team is stumbling into the playoffs because they’re incoherent. They’ve shown signs of infighting, as the relationship between Wall and Bradley Beal has been intermittently tense. They have failed to shore up their lack of depth with signings like Jodie Meeks, Ramon Sessions, and Ian Mahinmi (shocker).

Maybe most notable is the Grand Canyon between how they talk game and execute it. This season alone, they’ve expressed that the Cavaliers were lucky to avoid them in the 2017 playoffs (LeBron promptly dropped 60 on them after this). They promised an initiation for Lonzo Ball that turned into an embarrassing win for Big Ballers everywhere. They blew double-digit leads to the Dallas Mavericks twice and got brutalized by J.J. Barea.

Still, a confident team is a dangerous team in the playoffs. Wall and Beal are both All-Star level guards that present challenges on the court when they’re engaged (according to Zach Lowe, Wall spent 76% of his time on the court this year standing or walking — the most lethargic mark in the league). A David vs. Goliath scenario with them in an eighth seed might motivate them out of their struggles. They’ve also proven to be a good playoff team, one that benefits from a shorter rotation, as they were a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

So, how do the Raptors game plan for the Wizards? What will be the keys as they begin their Spring ’18 Redemption Tour? We have lots of prior context with these two teams, so here are three major storylines to watch for.

Depth Needs to be the Decisive Factor

It would be over-simplifying to say the Wizards have five good players and the Raptors have ten, but depth certainly needs to be a decisive factor for Toronto if they’re going to win this series.

Washington has done better than expected in the depth department. Tomas Satoransky has turned into a nice player for them (46.5% from three, albeit on only 1.5 attempts per game) and navigates the basketball court in a cerebral way. The opportunity of starter’s minutes in Wall’s absence has been huge for him.

Still, beyond Satoransky and the flighty Kelly Oubre Jr. — who is the Wizards’ confidence gap personified — Washington is very thin. The recent signing of Ty Lawson won’t do anything to fix that either; the Raptors ran him off the court (and basically out of the league) in the 2016 Indiana series.

The Wizards will tighten their rotation in the playoffs. Last year, they only played six players over 20 minutes a game in the post-season, with Bojan Bogdonavich the outside guy. This year, you can expect Oubre and Satoransky to reach those totals, but a whole lot of mixing and matching starters — and 40 minutes from Wall and Beal — will be needed for Scott Brooks.

The Raptors have to find a way to take advantage of this. Their depth needs to wear down the Wizards, and defensive intensity from the five-man bench unit will be the biggest part of that. We know the unit of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl has been integral to the Raptors’ success this season — against Washington, they need to decisively win any minutes they get without one of Wall and Beal on the floor. They also need to create transition opportunities, force the Wizards’ two All-Stars to guard, and basically be the bench mob we expect them to be. In the Raptors’ two wins over the Wizards this season, the playoff rotation bench players were a clear positive:

November 19, Raptors 100 - Wizards 91

Pascal Siakam, +18
C.J. Miles, +13
Fred VanVleet, +7
Jakob Poeltl, +6

March 2, Raptors 102 - Wizards 95

Fred VanVleet, +20
C.J. Miles, +18
Pascal Siakam, +13
Jakob Poeltl, +4
Delon Wright, +4

In the two losses, the numbers weren’t as decisive:

November 5, Wizards 107 - Raptors 96

Fred VanVleet, +14
OG Anunoby, +4
C.J. Miles, 0
Pascal Siakam, -1
Delon Wright, -5

February 1, Wizards 122 - Raptors 119

Delon Wright, -6
Jakob Poeltl, -7
Pascal Siakam, -7

Dwane Casey is almost assuredly going to play this rotation, with Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira getting out there if needed. Finding the right combinations early in the series will be critical, especially considering how limited that time without Wall and/or Beal on the floor will be.

How Dwane Casey Uses Jonas Valanciunas in the Rotation

I mentioned earlier how the Wizards slipped statistically in Wall’s absence, but the team actually played a more aesthetically-pleasing style of basketball without him. With Beal as the fulcrum, the Wizards moved in a culture reset-y direction of increased ball movement — pre All-Star, their assist percentage was 60.6% (7th in NBA); after All-Star, it went up to 68.6% (2nd in NBA).

That’s because the Wizards are generally an assist-happy team (more than the Raptors), but they do so in very different ways depending on whether John Wall is out there. Without Wall, Beal is the primary pick-and-roll creator, and his drives result in more swing sequences. With Wall, there’s more likelihood of him beating a defender clean in the pick-and-roll, resulting in easy dump off passes (as Jacob Mack describes it here, a more “selfish” assist).

While we don’t have any data from 2017-18 for this latter scenario — Wall missed all four regular season matchups with the Raptors — the past has shown us that Jonas Valanciunas is a heavy target for Washington in Wall-Gortat pick-and-rolls. Here’s a couple examples from last season:

Dwane Casey has tried to negotiate these scenarios. Valanciunas has played softer coverage, retreating into the paint to deter layups and force mid-range jumpers (he played this to perfection against James Harden in the March win over the Rockets). If he doesn’t still get beat by the dribble, he’s done his job in this scenario.

Still, the leash may be short if Wall starts making those mid-range shots at a high clip. How quickly Casey turns to Jakob Poeltl and Serge Ibaka at the five will be a huge factor in this series — the Raptors desperately need Valanciunas’ rebounding on the floor against the Wizards, as they were out-rebounded in three of the four matchups this season.

The Raptors should also be confident enough to play their big man his preferred minutes because of his offensive role in the starting lineup. The reality has been that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan struggle to make shots, and especially in the playoffs, Jonas either cleans up the mess or makes up for their lack of efficiency with easy baskets.

Here’s what I’m saying: if Valanciunas can navigate the pick-and-roll defense with success, it’ll be a major lift on the other end for the Raptors you’re most nervous about — the stars.

Finding Solid Defense, Avoiding Gambles and Breakdowns

In the lead-up to the playoffs, a lot of the worry over the Raptors has circled around their lack of intensity. This can mostly be sourced on the defensive end, where they’ve gone from fourth in the NBA (102.6 rating) pre All-Star to 11th post All-Star (105.1). This bottomed out in last week’s game against the Cavaliers, when the Raptors — namely Kyle Lowry — came into the game mentally out of it. Gambles turned into easy baskets for the executing Cavs, as they dropped an easy 132 points.

This was a flashpoint in a larger issue for the Raptors, and it’s that we really only saw the heights of defensive intensity in two games over the last two months — March 9 vs. Houston and April 4 vs. Boston. While it was good to see them play to potential in these two important games, they’ll need to be more consistent in the post-season.

Gambling for steals is a bit of a cliché for bad defense, but it’ll be very important against a pick-and-roll team like Washington. Lowry, arguably the highest risk-reward defender on the Raptors team, will be tasked with guarding Wall, with OG Anunoby expected to follow Beal. There’s no hiding for the Raptors’ All-Star guard, as his minutes load will also increase along with his role.

As mentioned earlier, it’ll be key for Lowry to funnel any action with Wall and Beal toward the rim, providing pressure all the while and rotating to shooters. Much like the Houston matchup, Toronto should be happy to provide the Wizards mid-range jumpers. Wall can make them, but it’s an inefficient shot that should bear out in the Raptors’ favour over time. The shot chart below shows us that Wall has made just 28.1% of his mid-range shots this season.

Expanding to last season, when Wall’s injury was not a factor, he shot 38% on mid-range jumpers.

The important word here is discipline. The Raptors are an excellent defensive team, especially when the bench guys start transitioning in: Toronto’s top three defensive two-man lineups are Fred VanVleet combined with Delon Wright (98.2 rating), Pascal Siakam (98.8), and Jakob Poeltl (99.4). Whoever it is, they need to ensure they’re keeping guards in front of them, avoiding breakdowns that the Wizards can turn into easy Wall dump offs or open looks from the outside. It goes back to depth here, too, as Toronto has the potential to wear down Washington both in games and over the course of a series.

All said, the Raptors have every right to be favoured in this series. Washington has a high ceiling, sure — having John Wall and Bradley Beal will do that for you. They also have a significantly lower floor than they have in past years, as a bad bench and difficult relationships have fried them a bit mentally. There’s no longer a veteran presence like Paul Pierce, there’s no x-factor that can realistically win multiple games. It comes down to those two stars, and how the Raptors deal with them. It’ll take a full team, a deep team, to do it — but it will be done. Give me the Raptors in five.

All stats via NBA.com and basketball reference.