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Raptors-Wizards Series Preview: Outside perspectives

It’s helpful to step outside the Raptors-Wizards bubble.

A little earlier, we went deep into the Toronto Raptors first-round matchup with the Washington Wizards, dropped the podcast, then rounded up takes from our own writers, providing our perspective on the series. For additional color, we had a Q&A with a pair of excellent Truth About It writers to get the alternate perspective on the series.

It can also be instructive to get perspectives from outside of the team-specific bubble. Those without a rooting (or writing) interest in the series have the benefit of more space, a balance of knowledge across both teams, and less potential bias. Getting their opinions can help further color the picture ahead of Game 1.

So we reached out to a handful of writers from around the league for their take on Raptors-Wizards, asking them a few simple questions.

What is the biggest strength/opportunity for the Raptors in this series?

James Herbert: The awesome bench! Also, the Wizards often seem like they hate each other, which is not an issue for Toronto. It’s not just a camaraderie thing — the Raptors have been much more than the sum of their parts all season, while Washington only really found that sort of cohesion on the court for a brief stretch where Tomas Satoransky was killing it.

Michael Pina: As the one seed, Toronto is deeper and better, more versatile and healthy. Washington, meanwhile, only won five of its last 16 games. They ranked 20th in net rating since the All-Star break and 29th in pace. I know this question was supposed to be about how the Raptors can take advantage of this matchup, but once they turn to their best bench unit (which only played four minutes against the Wizards this season), leads will stretch and deficits will close. Washington doesn’t really have an answer beyond what I’m about to write in my next answer, and that won’t be easily sustainable through an entire series.

Seerat Sohi: Benign answer, but being the better team. The Raptors have the best player in the series in DeMar DeRozan — something you couldn’t have said when they got swept by the Wizards, sorry Lowry — and talent flattens out in the playoffs. Dwane Casey is the superior coach, who has improved by leaps and bounds this season, as far as making in-game adjustments goes, which is necessary against a team like the Wizards that considers going small its secret weapon. In fact, one of Casey’s great in-game adjustments this season came against the Wizards, when he put Kyle Lowry on a scorching Bradley Beal after OG Anunoby couldn’t handle the task. The Raptors won that game down the stretch.

Sagar Trika: I think Toronto’s depth will serve them will against Washington in this series. I think head coach Dwane Casey can afford to go five or six players deep into his bench and still expect competency from his players. I do not think Washington’s bench is nearly as deep and I think the Wizards’ bench minutes can get ugly quickly.

What is the biggest strength/opportunity for the Wizards in this series?

James Herbert: Their strength is their length. (I am a poet.) I like the Wizards best when they go small and get switchy, and few teams have the luxury of being able to throw both Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre out there to pester DeMar DeRozan and try to mess up passing lanes. Also, while their starting five might feel a bit stale, the pieces fit and and they have a ton of shared playoff experience.

Michael Pina: The Wizards are the most disappointing team in the Eastern Conference by a fairly wide margin, but any team with this amount of talent, that can shorten their rotation and finally utilize lineups that are close enough to being 1-5 interchangeable, should view the playoffs as a helpful elixir. As top heavy as they are, the Wizards might have more skill than the Raptors. John Wall and Bradley Beal should each average over 40 minutes, and Scott Brooks should deploy a dangerous lineup that features those two, Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter, and Kelly Oubre. (This unit has only played three possessions all season, but would be extremely difficult to defend, for obvious reasons.)

Seerat Sohi: Two things, the first being juju. The Wizards are used to thriving as underdogs in the post-season. Somehow, all the regular season awkwardness and bad vibes give way to what a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal surrounded by 3-and-D wings and a master roller in Marcin Gortat look like. Which brings me to my second point. DeRozan has nowhere to hide in this series. Do you want him guarding Beal? Absolutely not. Exhausting himself chasing Otto Porter off screens? Wall and Satoransky would mince him. The best bet might be to hide him on Markieff Morris, who might be goaded into backing him down. The Raptors can live with that, and for all of Morris’s size advantages, I’ve always thought that guys who play a lot in the post offensively are better-suited to defend it. Lost art, and all that. The problem is the Wizards are filled with offensive threats and there will be times the Raptors have to play two wings who need to hide somewhere. DeRozan is going to be put through the ringer on pick and roll’s in this series. You can’t take him off the floor, though, so the victim might be Jonas Valanciunas and his lumbering foot-speed, especially when you consider the fact that the Wizards ball-handlers are more than willing to take wide open mid-range jumpers.

Sagar Trika: I  think the Wizards are capable of capitalizing on any potential “mental blocks” Toronto may have both from their series against Washington three years ago and just from Toronto’s playoff troubles of late. While Washington was clearly inferior to Toronto this season and they seemingly have off-court chemistry issues, they have enough talented players in John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr., among others, to capitalize if Toronto falters at all.

Do you subscribe to there being any sort of residual mental advantage for the Wizards three years after a sweep, considering a few of the primary pieces still remain for each side?

James Herbert: Only if the Raptors lose Game 1. Or if Washington brings Drew Gooden out of retirement. (Serious answer: Watch Kyle Lowry. If he is rattled, the team will be rattled. If not, then no to the whole residual mental advantage thing.)

Michael Pina: I do not. The Wizards will be confident because they clearly don’t care about the regular season and survived a lengthy stretch without their best player after nearly making it to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago. But, again, there’s a reason why the Raptors won more games than every team except the Houston Rockets, with a higher net rating than every team except Houston and the Golden State Warriors. They’re better.

Seerat Sohi: I guess I sort of answered this in the second question, but yes. It’s not just that the Wizards up their game in the playoffs, it’s that the Raptors get worse. This Raptors team is different, we think — we hope, really. If that’s really the case, it doesn’t really matter. The Raptors should easily win this series. If they show signs of weakness, though, and the Wizards smell blood in the water… well, let’s just say I’m nervous for Game 1.

Sagar Trika: I do fear for the Raptors because I believe Washington has a residual mental advantage. That said, I don’t know whether or not Toronto will be able to overcome those blocks as they haven’t shown the ability to do so in past postseasons. I do think it’s a concern, though.

Who takes the series, in how many games, and why?

James Herbert: Raptors in six close games. The Wizards have way more talent than a typical No. 8 seed, but Toronto has a stronger identity, a more adaptable roster and a more trustworthy coaching staff. All bets are off if Fred VanVleet’s shoulder injury is an issue, though!

Michael Pina: Raptors in 6.

Seerat Sohi: The Raptors in 6. They’re going to lose Game 1, because of course they are. If the way this post-season bracket shook out tells us anything, it’s that nothing is going to come easy for Toronto. They’re not going to figure things out right away. The Wizards are well-suited to punch them in the mouth. But the Raptors now are better suited to dig themselves out of holes and quickly adjust. They’ll start with a whimper and end with a bang, exorcising their demons with a convincing close-out road victory. That’s the story the regular season has told us, anyways.

Sagar Trika: I think Toronto wins this series in five games simply because they have a more talented roster and win the coaching battle.

OTHER OUTSIDE OPINIONS

FiveThirtyEight give the Raptors a 91-percent chance to win this series and 17-percent chance to win the championship. ESPN’s BPI odds have the Raptors at 88 percent to beat the Wizards. Basketball Reference has them at 90 percent.

Jacob Goldstein‘s model is pessimistic way down at 85 percent, and Nathan Walker‘s use of Vegas odds with those numbers shrinks it to 84.4 percent. The most likely outcome using Jacob’s model is the Raptors in 5, and the Raptors in any number of games are the four most likely outcomes. In fact, the Raptors in 4, 5, 6, or 7 all have a greater likelihood than Washington winning, period.

Bovada has the Raptors as +850 to win the championship, fourth among all teams. They also have the Raptors at -600 for the first round win, and 8-point favorites in Game 1. 5Dimes has the Raptors at 8-point favorites for Game 1, -675 to win this series, and +1100 to win the championship. That 8-point line, by the way, ties the highest single-game line the Raptors have had during this core’s playoff run, based on my pre-game notes throughout that run.

All of that is to say, not only do the analytic models favor the Raptors heavily – which makes sense since they’re based on regular season performance and can’t account for things like “Playoff Raptors” or the Wizards finally liking each other or whatever – but the oddsmakers do, as well. More than just an expected outcome goes into setting Vegas lines, but you’d think that more public money would go against the Raptors with a neutral line, given the perception of them. Toronto being extreme betting favorites points to some serious confidence in their ability to come through – they’re the second-biggest round one favorite.

My Picks

If anyone cares: Raptors in 6, Cavs in 5, 76ers in 6, Celtics in 7 / Warriors in 5, Blazers in 6, Jazz in 7, Rockets in 4

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