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Previewing tonight’s game with John Converse Townsend of Truth About It

With All-Star Weekend is firmly in the rear-view mirror, the Raptors will embark on a journey mine and thine eyes have not seen in a long, long time — a playoff push. The Raptors currently sit third in the Eastern Conference, four games over .500 and two games up on the fourth seeded Bulls. Their first test will be the Washington Wizards (25-27), who are also in the mix for a top-four playoff seed.

In their most recent contest, the Raptors blew out the Wizards in Washington D.C by a score of 101-88. As usual, Lowry and Derozan carried the team, scoring 19 and 20 points apiece, but it was the play of Patrick Patterson that truly shined. He poured in 18 points on 8 of 10 shooting from the field, and for the first time, I clued into his importance on this team. The win leapfrogged the Raptors over the Wizards, and marked the first time since forever that the Raptors were at .500 mid-way through the season. The victory prompted me to write a detailed recap of the game, and all nepotism aside, it’s a much better read than this recap.

I caught up with John Converse Townsend (coolest name ever) of ESPN Truehoop Network’s Wizards blog Truth About It to preview tonight’s match-up:

1) Bradley Beal has a reputation for being an excellent shooter (and rightly so), yet his true-shooting percentage this season, and last, have been well-below league-average. What’s the deal with Beal’s shooting?

Bradley Beal is a great shooter, it’s true. The problem, I think, is that he’s always been such a good shooter that he never bothered to develop his game near the basket. Put differently, he relies on his jump shot more often than he should and Randy Wittman doesn’t do Beal, or the Wizards, any favors by encouraging his players to take the least-efficient shot in the game: the midrange jumper.

Beal has attempted the eighth-most shots between 15 and 19 feet and shoots just 35.7 percent from that area, below NBA average. He’s a career 40 percent shooter from 3, but he doesn’t take enough of them, which hurts his TS%. It’s a silly offensive strategy, very frustrating to watch, but expected because Wittman hates analytics.

2) Coming into the game, the Wizards currently sit two games under .500 and sit sixth in the Eastern Conference. As currently constructed, does this team have a realistic shot at winning a round or two in the playoffs, and if not, will GM Ernie Grunfeld add a player before the trade deadline?

Ernie Grunfeld has been working the phones. He’s asked about a trio of point guards: Andre Miller, Beno Udrih and Luke Ridnour. Why? Because Eric Maynor, signed to the bi-annual exception on the first day of free agency (with a player option for next season), might be the worst point guard in the league. Former D-Leaguer Garrett Temple looks like an All-Star compared to Maynor, who has played seven minutes in 24 games in 2014.

Maynor, in a way, represents the Wizards most glaring issue: the lack of talent in the second unit. The starters are great. They’re playing as well as any other starting unit in the Association. But you just can’t really trust the guys off the bench, outside of Temple, Webster and sometimes Trevor Booker. First-round draft picks Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Otto Porter do little besides rack up DNP-CDs and Kevin Seraphin is a black hole—he will shoot every time he gets the ball.

Wittman, as a result, has been forced to play an eight- or nine-man rotation during this sub-.500 playoff run. Short rotations are not uncommon in the postseason, and the Wiz tend to play to their competition, so maybe there’s a chance to get out of the first round.

However, the Wizards are not a good team—Wittman has said so himself—so if they intend to make any noise in late-April, they’ll have to win enough games to avoid the 7th or 8th seed.

3) Trevor Ariza has secretly put together a very productive season thus far, and his contributions as a 3-and-D wing have been crucial in numerous Wizards wins. Will the Wizards resign him this off-season, or will they bank on a player like Webster, or Otto Porter Jr to replace Ariza’s minutes?

The word from league insiders earlier this calendar year was that keeping Marcin Gortat, not Trevor Ariza, will be the Wizards’ top priority this summer. I expect Ariza to walk … and head West.

The good news is that Webster was great in a starting role (he took over for Ariza) last season, posting career-highs across the board. Wizards fans and team brass have to hope he can regain that form for the 2014-15 campaign. The bad news is that if Webster can’t get it done … well, they’re going to be in trouble. Otto Porter looks like a lot of things, but “NBA-ready” isn’t one of them, to put it kindly.

4) What’s the key to stopping the Wizards’ attack? Last time our two teams played, John Wall ripped our defense to shreds and dropped 30+. Is the key to run Beal off the three-point line, and keep Wall out of the paint?

You stop the Wizards attack by forcing them to find buckets in halfcourt sets. Only eight teams produce a lower percentage of their points in the paint (high percentage shots!) than the Wizards, despite the team being sixth in the NBA in fastbreak points per game (16.5).

The Wizards are a jump-shooting team (second-most attempts from midrange) that can’t shoot jump shots (fifth-worst percentage).

As important as it is to run Beal off the 3-point line (easy), and get physical with Nene (he hates contact), it’s even more important to hound John Wall and do everything possible to keep the ball out of his hands. He is the primary—if not the only—shot creator on the team. Look out for his crosscourt jump-pass.

5) Since the NBA denied us the opportunity, tell me who would win in a dunk-off between Terrence Ross and John Wall?

I wasn’t a huge fan of the new format, either…Gotta go with Terrence “Flight” Ross. Wall is the better player, but Ross is the better dunker.

The key to stopping the Wizards is to slow down John Wall, but that’s no easy task. Wall is quite possibly the quickest guard in the NBA, and he is freakishly athletic. In fact, since the dunk was so good, I’ll just leave this gif of his dunk-contest winning dunk (sort-of) here (courtesy of SBNation):

Ideally, the Raptors’ guards should try to keep Wall from entering the paint, but that’s simply impossible at times, especially in transition. The Wizards like to surround Wall with deadly three-point shooters — players like Beal, Webster, Ariza come to mind — and he is one of the best facilitators in the NBA (currently fourth in assists per game). Hopefully Lowry can stay out of foul-trouble because if Greivis Vasquez has to see time guarding Wall, we could be in for a looong night.

Bradley Beal is their second option on offense. Don’t be fooled by Beal’s sub-par shooting percentages — he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA. His three-point stroke has drawn comparisons to Ray Allen’s and he’s liable to string together a three-point barrage at any time. He’s a decent ball-handler, and he can shoot from just about any spot on the floor. Derozan will have to work defensively through screens and deny Beal any daylight.

Player Match-ups

Point Guard — Lowry and Wall have been the Eastern Conference’s two most productive guards, so this match-up comes down to the back-ups. The Wizards held the rights to Kendall Marshall earlier this season, but they opted to cut him, leaving them with Eric Maynor backing up John Wall. Vasquez might be a disappointment, but he’s still a better player than Maynor at this point.

Advantage: Raptors, slightly.

Shooting Guard — Beal isn’t the only deadly shooter at the shooting guard spot in Washington. Martell Webster is a deadly three-point shooter and he’s quite adept at spotting up along the perimeter. Derozan will be forced to run around screens all night long, so hopefully Derozan didn’t party it up too hard in NOLA last weekend, and is well-rested for tonight’s game. He’ll need to log a significant portion of the minutes at shooting guard against a deep Wizards team.

Advantage: Tied

Small Forward — Trevor Ariza has flown under-the-radar all season. He’s the Wizards’ best wing defender, and he’s a very capable three-point shooter. In many ways, he fills the same role as Ross, only better, and more consistently. If Ariza gets hot in the early going, look for Dwane Casey to pin John Salmons onto him, which would likely be a mistake.

Advantage: Wizards

Front Court — With Amir back and healthy, the Raptors once again find themselves with five capable big men on the roster. It has yet to be announced, but my guess is that Patrick Patterson will continue to start at power-forward. Nene and Gortat are an odd pairing — they’re both able to knock down the jumper and operate in the post — but the Raptors front-court should be able to match their production.

Advantage: Tied

Bench — The Raptors should hold a significant advantage on the bench, as Martell Webster is the Wizards’ only consistent second-unit performer. If 2Pat starts, Amir should bring energy off the bench and help the second-unit flourish on both ends of the floor. Hopefully, Vasquez and Salmons can bring something to the table and spell Lowry and Derozan at times.

Advantage: Raptors

Predictions

The Raptors match-up fairly well against the Wizards because they’re fairly similar squads. Both teams run their offense through the wing, and both teams feature offensively functional bigs. Wall’s speed and Beal’s shooting worries me, but given the Raptors’ superlative bench depth, I’m calling this one a win for the Raptors.

Vegas says: Raptors are +3.5 point dogs on the road, with the over-under set at 195.5. There’s also something about -140 and +160, but if you understand that, then you should also understand that betting on sports is a silly exercise. See the lines yourself here.

William Says: Don’t underestimate what a healthy Amir can do for this team. If he’s healthy and running with the second unit, I expect him and Vasquez pick the Wizards’ bench apart with the pick and roll. I’ll take the under on the total, and predict that the Raptors win by 5 in a very close contest.

UPDATE (6:27 pm)