The Raptors have spent the first two weeks of the new decade playing inconsistent, yet exhilarating basketball. We’ve witnessed both ends of the Raptors spectrum: stretches of sheer annihilation (see: first half versus OKC) and disheartening periods of collapse (see: Carmelo Anthony’s dagger). Granted, Toronto is in the midst of reintegrating their stars back onto the roster, but one hopes the ease of their schedule ahead could expedite this process.
Next up: the Washington Wizards, who are positioned at a lowly 12th in the Eastern Conference. To make matters worse for Washington, the team’s exciting rookie Rui Hachimura has missed his last 15 games with a groin injury. Now, the Raptors are facing a disgruntled Wizards squad whose last two games have ended with a devastating second-half collapse. In fact, things have gotten so dire in Washington that the team’s star player, Bradley Beal, mentioned the need for a culture change.
As Fred VanVleet nears his return, the Raptors have their own consistency issues to sort out. At its peak, Toronto’s janky, aggressive defense works wonders against the league’s top performers. However, the team occasionally lacks defensive focus, causing stretches of unravelling much like we saw in the fourth quarter versus the Trail Blazers (and the Spurs, and the Thunder). These defensive lapses became a bigger issue when Toronto was devoid of any potent offensive ability due to injuries. However, after reintroducing soon-to-be All-Star Pascal Siakam, noted sharpshooter Norman Powell, and genius facilitator Marc Gasol, I expect to see a sharp uptick in offensive reliability and defensive intensity — especially against the undermanned Wizards.
Here are the details for tonight’s matchup:
Where to Watch:
TSN 1/4, 7 p.m. ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol
Washington – Gary Payton II, Isaiah Thomas, Bradley Beal, Thomas Bryant, Ian Mahinmi
Toronto – Fred VanVleet (Hamstring – Questionable)
Washington – John Wall (Achilles - Out), Garrison Matthews (Ankle - Out), Rui Hachimura (Groin - Out), Moritz Wagner (Ankle - Out)
Patrick McCan’t Play Basketball
Nick Nurse must love flummoxing his fan base. More often than not, he’s a great coach who succeeds in lineup experimentation and in motivating his players — e.g. Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — but I’m out of answers when it comes to McCaw’s excessive playing time. Nurse’s decision to play McCaw for an average of 27.3 minutes per night is equally as frustrating as his initial refusal to match up Gasol with Joel Embiid in last year’s second round of the post-season.
Davis consistently outperforms McCaw in nearly every statistical category, yet plays over 10 fewer minutes per game. If VanVleet returns tonight — a long shot at this time — one would expect McCaw to see much less playing time. But, until it happens, I won’t be getting my hopes up.
More than anything, McCaw is just an eyesore on the court. Does anyone enjoy watching him handle the ball, knowing full well that it will likely lead to an ill-advised, hesitant jumper or a live-ball turnover? On the defensive end, he is consistently obliterated by screens, resulting in open drives to the rim. Let’s collectively pray this madness comes to an end tonight against the Wizards.
Be More Aggressive
It can’t be understated: free throws are important. In the Raptors’ loss to the Spurs just two games ago, Toronto shot a whopping 19 fewer free throws than their opponent in a one-point loss. The Raptors have struggled to draw shooting fouls in the month of January, attempting just 18.3 FTAs per game — the second-worst mark in the league.
Much of this offensive passivity can be chalked up to tired legs due to injury, though Pascal hasn’t sought out fouls much since his return either. Up until his groin injury, Siakam routinely shot over five free throws per game, which has decreased to just two attempts per game since his return. After coming back from an injury that sidelined him for the better part of a month, a readjustment period can be expected.
The last time the Raptors faced off against the Wizards, Toronto attempted 44 free throws without Siakam, who hurt his groin in the previous game against the Detroit Pistons. If the Raptors can approach this level of aggression once again (while adding Siakam and Powell to the mix), the team should be in good shape.
Bradley Beal torched the Raptors the last time these two teams played, scoring 37 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. Patrick McCaw was his primary defender that game, and was completely unable to track down Beal off of screens, getting blown by several times throughout the night. Frankly, McCaw looked clueless out there.
It takes a unique combination of size, strength and athleticism to contain Beal; hopefully we’ll see a bit more OG Anunoby on him this time around, assuming Siakam takes on Dāvis Bertāns duty. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry coverage on Beal as well, depending on the situation.
Though Beal’s perimeter shooting has waned this year (31 percent from three), it’s still vital to stick on him around the three-point line and to close passing lanes. Beal has become an excellent distributor, averaging a career-high 6.5 assists per game this year, and has enough spacing around him to do damage in that area. Luckily, the Raptors are now at near-full strength, so they have a multitude of weapons to throw at him — assuming Nurse removes McCaw from his arsenal.