Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Wizards, March 2

Can the Raptors even the season series?

The Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have a sort of strange recent history together. From the Michael Ruffin game to the upside-down whiteboard, to a Raptors’ run of eight consecutive regular season wins sandwiched around a Wizards playoff sweep, it’s hard to know what to expect from these two sides. This year alone, the Wizards have beaten the Raptors twice without John Wall, games that stand out as rare missteps in a season that hasn’t had many bad ones for the Raptors.

The two sides will close out the season series in Washington on Friday, with the Raptors looking to even things up at 2-2. For a Wizards team still down Wall and fighting for home court in the first round of the playoffs, every win carries a pretty heavy weight – they’re only half a game back of Cleveland for the third seed in the Eastern Conference but also only two up on Philadelphia, down in the sixth spot, so there’s little room for a slide. Things are more straight-forward for the Raptors, who lead Boston by half a game atop the conference and would like to stay there, though they’re at no risk of falling any further than second.

It’s an interesting clash of teams playing to new offensive identities. The Raptors have varied their approach with more threes and far more assists, and the Wizards without Wall have been one of the most assist-happy teams in the NBA. Washington also does well to crash the offensive glass and force turnovers on defense, looking for an edge in the number of shooting possessions over the course of a game. The Raptors, meanwhile, are among the league’s best overall at both ends of the floor but are a bit susceptible on their own glass. Both teams foul opponents a lot, too, so this late start may eat up most of your Friday if the game gets gummed up and physical.

The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Conor Dirks of Truth About It, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Wizards stood still at the deadline. Did this surprise you at all, given some of the depth concerns?

Conor Dirks: It surprised me in just one sense. There was a moment when it seemed like a Gortat trade was a necessity, given the rancor he stirred up with cryptic Twitter fingers following a few Wall-less “team” wins. When Wall showed up one night doing the rounds on national television promoting Kumho Tires (I know…) on every major sports network and openly bitching about his perception of Gortat’s comments, it felt for a day or two like something had to give prior to the deadline. The reports of Washington shopping Gortat flooded in. But there’s just one problem: Washington has very little depth behind Gortat. Mahinmi is a disaster, and there’s simply no one else on the roster that can give the team 25 minutes of classic center play. Without getting a center in return, there wasn’t much room for a deal. Washington is hemmed in by their own lack of desirable assets too. A lot of teams, like the Raptors, keep a stable of young players. The Wizards have Kelly Oubre Jr., and then they have their big three (Wall, Beal, Porter). That’s about it.

Blake Murphy: What depth concerns! This team is humming without John Wall, winning 10 of their last 14 overall. I’ve long been a fan of Tim Frazier, and I know Tomas Satoransky hive was alive and well at one point prior to Wall’s injury. Where is your comfort level with the point guard depth chart right now?

Conor Dirks: I feel great about Washington’s point guard depth, especially after Wall’s return. The Wizards recently signed Ramon Sessions to a 10-day, but I’d have advocated against signing another point guard to replace Wall. The Wizards have far bigger needs at wing. After Beal, it’s Jodie Meeks, a 3-point specialist who has been anything but special this year. After Porter, it’s Oubre, but Oubre also backs up Markieff Morris, and Beal. It’s unlikely that Sessions will see much of the court, given that Satoransky has been fantastic, and Frazier has been mostly adequate. For the long term, Frazier is a good third string point guard. A Satoransky extension should be a priority for Washington in the offseason. He’s on a great deal right now (around $3 million per year), but it expires after next season.

Blake Murphy: There’s been a huge shift in team assist percentage with Wall out, despite the fact that Wall is a good playmaker in general, particularly in terms of creating corner threes for teammates. What gives with the shift to a more democratic approach here? This is the Raptors’ season narrative, get your own.

Conor Dirks: Ha! Well, this is a sensitive subject among Washington fans. How can a guy who often sits among the league’s top assist-getters be discouraging ball movement? Two ways, at least. First, Wall needs to move off of the ball. He developed a really bad habit of sitting plays out when the action featured Beal. Wizards possessions simply weren’t as dynamic as they’ve been lately, even if they were often more exciting on an individual basis. Wall has a tendency to look for passes that set his teammates up for a shot, rather than passes that progress the offense one step along a multi-step path. Which leads me to the second way in which the Wizards became more democratic: the most consistent teams in the league (the Warriors, the Spurs, the Raptors, and others) approach possessions in a fundamentally different way than the Wizards typically did this season. While the best teams churn through passes and cuts until the defense can’t keep up, the Wizards relied too much on Wall and Beal creating shots through sheer force of will or individual talent. Some games, that worked. But it wasn’t consistent.

Blake Murphy: I’m burying the Bradley Beal stuff here because I’ve seen enough of him already this year. 27-6-6 and 38-5-4 in the two Wizards wins against Toronto, both without Wall. It seems silly to ask, but the Raptors fanbase at one time had a bit of a Lowry/DeRozan debate in terms of A1 importance (despite the obvious symbiosis). Is any of that brewing with Wall/Beal?

Conor Dirks: I think that Beal will keep deferring to Wall when they’re both healthy, even despite Beal’s All-Star season (and it’s been a really, really great one). But the debate is legitimate. I still believe that Wall is Washington’s A1, but it’s closer than it was a season ago. The good news is that despite some strange reports a few years ago and real differences in personality, the two players really enjoy each other and play well off of each other. The burden has been heavy on the two of them over the years, as Washington’s management failed over and over again to produce a viable bench. Now that the burden has been alleviated a little bit with Satoransky and Oubre’s emergence, I expect the bond between Wall and Beal will remain strong, much like it has with Lowry and DeRozan.

Blake Murphy: Kelly Oubre still wavy?

Conor Dirks: You tell me.

Raptors updates
The Raptors may have to tweak their starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 13 here. That’s a really long stretch of the starting five being uninterrupted, and on the season in general, the team’s good health has helped that unit forge a nice chemistry. They’ve started together 42 times, playing 655 minutes, a total that not only ranks near the top of the league but is closing in one the most heavily used lineup in the time we have lineup data available for (lineup data goes back to 2007-08; the 2013-14 lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Johnson-Valanciunas played 717 minutes together). The reason there could be a change here is that OG Anunoby is listed as doubtful after spraining his right ankle for the second time this season on Wednesday. The Raptors almost always list players as questionable if their status is up in the air, so the doubtful tag is noticeable here.

Norman Powell would probably draw the start if Anunoby can’t go. He’s started in the two halves Anunoby’s missed so far this year, including the second half on Wednesday. There’s a case to be made, especially if Anunoby is going to miss significant time, that C.J. Miles or even Delon Wright start in that spot, instead, but opposite Bradley Beal and the Wizards, Powell makes the most sense defensively (this didn’t work well once earlier this year, but in broad skillset, Powell fits). Plus, the team needs to try to get Powell going at some point, and he might be running low on chances. His usage has been criminally low with the starters. At the very least, his defense has been fine there, and the Powell-with-starters group has a positive net rating in 50 minutes together in 2018.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Wizards updates
Washington is hanging in just fine without Wall right now. For the season, the team is still better off with him than without – a plus-4.3 net rating with him on the court and minus-0.4 without – but playing to nearly even without one of your All-Stars is still pretty good. A large part of that has been the success of the starting lineup as a group – they’ve now played 259 minutes together and have a plus-12 net rating, a really good mark for a high-usage group that parallels Toronto’s starters (though the Raptors have a much larger sample). That was not the case when Tim Frazier was starting over Tomas Satoranksy (minus-4.4 in 199 minutes), and Frazier’s slid back into a backup role effectively.

The Wizards are still think. Only about eight of these players are playing like they deserve rotation slots, and so naturally Jodie Meeks has hurt the Raptors in the past. One Washington win was all Bradley Beal and the other saw eight Wizards score in double-figures, including Meeks and Ian Mahinmi, who have drawn ire from Wizards fans for their inconsistent play (Meeks is shooting 31.5 percent on threes). Beal is where the defensive gameplan will place its heaviest emphasis, though, and if they can do a reasonable job containing him, the Raptors will be in decent shape.

PG: Tomas Satoransky, Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions
SG: Bradley Beal, Jodie Meeks
SF: Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre
PF: Markieff Morris, Mike Scott, Chris McCullough
C: Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith
OUT: John Wall
TBD: None
G-League (no affiliate): Devin Robinson

The line
The Raptors are 3-point favorites on the road here, with a 216.5 over-under.

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