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Raptors lay season on line vs. the Wizards: Preview, start time, and more

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Toronto’s last chance saloon, as coach Nick Nurse called it, goes through the Washington Wizards (and former Raptor Alex Len. We have come full circle.

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors are back in Tampa after a tough Western Conference road trip full of moral victories, yet short of wins. Had they won at least one more game out of their past four, tonight’s match-up against the Washington Wizards would be all the more meaningful. As it stands, this game functionally represents Toronto’s last chance to make it into the play-in game.

Yes, the Raptors are still not out of the play-in scenario, especially after the Wizards and Indiana Pacers lost last night. They’d need to win more than they’ve been losing the rest of the way, but there’s still a mathematical chance — and the Wizards are the team they’re trying to pass. However, at the same time, Toronto doesn’t seem to be that urgent in its focus on the play-in tournament, given how they’ve rested key players, which is on top of other injury-related absences to Chris Boucher and Gary Trent, Jr.

Meanwhile, Washington appears to be fighting tooth-and-nail every night. They are 13-4 since they lost to the Raptors last month. Russell Westbrook is playing like his old balls-to-the-walls self, averaging 22/13/14, while Bradley Beal has been putting up 31 points per game while shooting 41 percent from behind the arc over the last ten games. The Wizards are now, against all odds, a dangerous team.

For the Raptors, we don’t quite know what we’ll see in terms of lineups. Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, we saw Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe start — which was unexpected, to say the least. And with OG Anunoby out again, there will likely be some re-jigging of the normal rotation. In that effort, Pascal Siakam averaged 31.5 points and ten rebounds at the Staples Center during their recent road trip and Fred VanVleet’s last two games weren’t too shabby either, as he put up 28.5 points and ten assists. Those are encouraging signs for tonight, even with a reduced Raptors lineup.

Regardless of who plays tonight, I think we’ll be in for an entertaining game. The Raptors have made most of their games as of late competitive despite missing several key players. And hey, at least it’s no longer a late-night game! Here are the details:

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet, 7:30 PM EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Stanley Johnson, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch

Washington – Bradley Beal, Raul Neto, Russell Westbrook, Rui Hachimura, Alex Len

Injuries:

Toronto – Chris Boucher (knee – out), Paul Watson (knee – out), OG Anunoby (calf – out), Gary Trent Jr. (lower leg – probable), Yuta Watanabe (ankle – probable)

Washington – Deni Avdija (ankle – out), Thomas Bryant (knee – out)

*******

Easy on Siakam

Despite a good showing recently, Pascal Siakam hasn’t quite been able to escape Toronto fans’ ire on a nightly basis. As mentioned, he’s had a monster two games in a row, and the numbers he put up were against two of the top Western Conference teams. Siakam was also constantly flanked with offensively challenged teammates, shrinking the space for him to operate offensively.

Against the Clippers, Siakam did indeed run out of gas in the fourth quarter — but he was not the only one. VanVleet could not get going as well. But it’s fair to note that both played almost the entire quarter, e.g. ten straight minutes, to keep the Raptors in the game. Sure, Siakam made a few errors — including a critical late offensive foul in transition — but he was one of the reasons the Raptors were competitive against LA at all.

At that moment, it was clear to see what Siakam intended: that pass was there initially for a streaking Khem Birch. That play had shades of Siakam’s faux pas against the Knicks. Siakam did not make the best decision on Tuesday night, but it wasn’t a terrible one initially. He made a decisive move — an improvement from his Knicks debacle — but unfortunately for him, he had an excellent defender waiting for him. It’s been a tough season for Siakam, but he’s not going to work it out by shying away from such scenarios. With Toronto’s season on the line tonight, here’s hoping Siakam makes his moves decisively and with confidence — come what may.

Jalen Harris, We The North

We finally got a glimpse of what Jalen Harris can do on the floor, and it’s been impressive so far. Due to Toronto’s backcourt depth, Harris hasn’t had much of a chance to play up until recently. He had previously exploded in the G League, posting 17.6 points per game while shooting 50 percent on 5.7 attempts behind the arc before dislocating his finger. Harris returned to the Raptors 905 for the playoffs but struggled to find his rhythm, averaging only 6.5 points.

One of the things carried over from Harris’ 905 play — which the Raptors could really use right now — is his ability to knock down shots despite coming in cold. He’s had his reps as the main facilitator now and then, but he can play off the ball, not touch the leather for a few plays, and randomly get hot from the perimeter. That’s a good skill to have given Harris’ position in the rotation right now. Not even the reigning Rookie of the Month, Malachi Flynn has been able to come in hot to a game.

Play-in Scenarios

While they own the tiebreaker, the Raptors trail the Wizards by three games. They also trail the collapsing Pacers by 3.5 games, whom they face in their last game of the season. Obviously, there are a lot of permutations involved here, but if the Raptors are at all serious about making that play-in game, they’ll need to have a serious showing against the Wizards tonight and against the Pacers in the finale.

To help Toronto out, the Pacers are imploding, but they have the struggling Cavs and half-speed Bucks on their schedule. Milwaukee essentially tried to give a game away to the Wizards last night, but Washington failed to capitalize. In all, Toronto would be well-served if both the Wizards and Pacers slumped their way to the end of the season — more than one win from either of them over their next six or seven games could spell trouble for the Raptors.

But let’s not worry too much about that. The Raptors need at least four wins over their next six games, period. For a team that’s been struggling to put together wins for most of the year, that could be a tall order. Nevertheless: the run will have to start tonight.