The Washington Wizards have the stated goal of finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference. Cynically, I’d guess this is so that they can sell their fans on the fact that they narrowly missed the playoffs and showed great improvement in the second half of the season (the latter of which is actually true). The optimist in me, though, remembers the movie Mr. 3000 and how the stated team goal of finishing third instead of fifth actually galvanized Bernie Mac’s Milwaukee Brewers (rest in peace).

The Wizards are now 28-46 but they’re 16-11 since Feb. 4. Before that date, they had a 94.5 O-Rating and a 100.1 D-Rating. Since, their offense has improved to 103.4 points per 100 possessions while their defense has remained mainly the same at 100.2. That’s a really stark improvement on the offensive end, and it can’t possibly all be credited to John Wall, who made his return on Jan. 12.

This turn of strong play has included two wins over the Raptors and one Toronto victory. In those three games, two of which were in Washington, the Wizards have outscored the Raptors 287-272, indicating a relatively close match-up, though one that favors the Wiz.

To get to the core of this improvement, I asked Amin Vafa of Hardwood Paroxysm and Bullets Forever his take on what’s made the offense so much more potent.

Blake: 16-11 after a 12-35 start. Simple question: what’s changed?
Amin: Short answer: John Freaking Wall.

Long answer: The confidence of everyone on the team has grown steadily over the course of the year. When you’ve got a top-tier defense, veterans who can do something as simple as “make open shots,” a rookie that’s only gotten better offensively and defensively as the season has progressed, and the fastest point guard in the league… things tend to improve. But also, John Wall injected some serious life into this listless team, and in the 41 games since he’s been back, they’re 23-18. That’s pretty damn good.

So what can the Raptors do to try and contain the Wizards? Well, Kyle Lowry better be amped up to play defense against John Wall, as Amir Johnson won’t be able to over-help and leave Nene alone. The Raptors do have an advantage on the wings, but the SportVu-endorsed strategy of leaving corner shooters open can’t be employed too heavily because Bradley Beal is back., joining Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza as long-range threats.

Offensively, it should be a tough night for Jonas Valanciunas, who has looked great of late but matches up with Emeka Okafor, still a great post defender when engaged. Webster and Ariza are also savvy defenders, while Beal is improving on that end.

I doubt the Raptors can take this one. The Wizards are hot and motivated, and the Raptors are neither of those things (4-15 over past 19 games, including said losses to Wall and Co.).

The Picks
Vegas: Raps -4.5
Hollinger: Raps -1.5
Blake: Wizards by 7

Sorry for the brevity, but it’s Wiz-Raps in April. Go check out Tim’s post from this morning if you somehow want more Raptor reading at this point in the season.

The game goes tonight at 7 p.m. on Sportsnet One.

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