After what seemed to be an interminably long “dog days” stretch since the All-Star break, the NBA playoffs are finally upon us, and with them, the Raptors series with the Washington Wizards (12:30 EST, TSN/ESPN2). Whether you’re a member of team #Questfor50, #FireCasey, or both, there’s really nothing quite like the excitement of a playoff series, and with two evenly matched squads going at it tonight, this one should be a dandy.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time breaking down the ins and outs of the series (Blake and William did an excellent job of that yesterday), so instead, here are a few storylines Raptor fans will be watching out for during Game 1:
- How healthy are the Raptors?
Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson’s health looms large over the course of a seven-game series – arguably the two most valuable players of the “running on all cylinders” Raptors, they’ll need to be playing at a high level from the get-go, and able to play extended minutes, in order for this team to reach its potential (which, quite honestly, is fighting tooth and nail against a team as talented as Washington).
The Raptors’ biggest advantage in this series is their depth. The team’s bench unit has been fantastic this season, but the volatility of the starting lineup has resulted in some inconsistent play, particularly over the last few months. Johnson, in particular, serves as a fulcrum for a healthy Raptors squad, and even though the two games since his return have been promising, we haven’t seen him in extended minutes, which is something to keep an eye out for. Lowry, obviously, is the team’s MVP, and there’s no way a 4 for 24 type shooting night is going to cut it against John Wall and a tough Wizards defence. Put quite simply, this team’s ceiling is dramatically raised or lowered by how close to 100 per cent Lowry and Johnson really are, and it’s a question that will probably be answered by the end of the first half of game 1.
- Has the second half swoon affected the home crowd?
One advantage the Raptors should be able to count on is a raucous atmosphere – last year’s was one of the more memorable playoff crowds of the past decade. However, the mediocre last few months seem to have tempered fans’ expectations somewhat, and the buzz that surrounded this team at the outset of the 2014 playoffs is seemingly nowhere to be found. With a team that really functions at its highest level when it’s relying on an undefinable chemistry, a loud, proud home atmosphere will go a long way to setting the tone that the city, the province, and even the country are behind the Raptors, and last year’s excitement wasn’t just the byproduct of ending a long playoff drought. However, until the ball is tipped, it’s not a guarantee. I have a feeling this will be answered definitively early by the home fans, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
- Playoff rotations? (or, more accurately: James Johnson?)
Dwane Casey’s penchant for putting James Johnson in and out of his lineups, seemingly at random, will meet its ultimate test as the team solidifies its rotation for this year’s playoff run. Most teams roll with something approximating a 9 man rotation, which means that Tyler Hansbrough or Johnson is the likely man left out (or, maybe, we’ll see a 10 man). This team is, obviously, better with Johnson, and he’ll have a key role in stopping Paul Pierce, who seems keyed up to play the 2014 Joe Johnson role as a larger 3 prepared to bully DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Hopefully Casey will put aside his crazy pills and give Johnson a healthy dose of minutes now that the games really count.
Speaking of Ross…
- Will this be Terrence Ross’ playoff redemption?
As Raptor fans know, the budding young swingman was more or less a mess in last year’s playoffs, averaging just 5 points on below 30% shooting from the field. Ross has struggled against Washington in the past – his 6.3 points per game career average against the Wizards is his second lowest against any team – and so it will be difficult, yet necessary, for him to approximate the 3-point specialist he’s shown flashes of becoming for at least the majority of this series. Without Ross clicking from the perimeter, this team relies very heavily on iso offence from its other wings, and his spot-up shooting could do a great deal in adding at least a modicum of unpredictability to the Raptor offence.
- Could Dwane Casey really have a coaching advantage over Randy Wittman?
I’ve read this a lot the past few days, and want to believe it, but I just don’t know if I can. What would Casey out coaching someone even look like? This? Wittman is the table, and Casey is the guy eating like a whale?
Questions aside, though, I think it’s safe to say that everyone on the Raptors’ side of the fence is simply looking forward to playoff basketball. It’s something that’s still somewhat of a novelty for our fan base, and that enthusiasm could (should) be doubled after having to sit through a lacklustre second half. This, my friends, is the payoff. As for a pick, I’m obviously backing the home side, so let’s say Raptors by 6, highlighted by a great “f*ck you” performance by DeMar DeRozan.
Playoff basketball. Can’t wait.