Raptors-Wizards Series Preview: Raptors Republic Roundtable

The collective confidence is…high? That can’t be right.

We began ratcheting up the playoff preview coverage yesterday and with the podcast this morning, but today’s the big day. We’ve learned the Washington Wizards, we’ve studied the tape and the numbers, we’ve puffed our chests out or quietly cowered in the recesses of our minds. Today’s the big series preview day. And we start, as we always do, with a staff roundtable to gauge everyone’s feelings heading into Game 1.

As a reminder, here’s the schedule for the series:

Here’s the tale of the tape:

And here are the projected rotations to start:

And now, most of the Raptors Republic staff, roundtable style.

Before we get into the Wizards – and we’ll do a proper look back at our preseason Raptors expectations after the playoffs – let’s take a moment to appreciate the greatest regular season in franchise history. It’s been good mostly start to finish, and the Raptors have gotten here in a noticeably different way than in years past. They also come in healthy. Getting here from where they started, how much has your confidence grown in this core to perform in the postseason?

William Lou: Confidence in postseason performance? For the Raptors??? I’m in a weird place with it. My rational brain tells me that this Raptors team is different, that they’ve changed their style of play, and while they’re far from perfect, that the Raptors have demonstrated a creativity and a willingness to solve problems they face. But on the other hand, there are scars from previous playoff letdowns that tinge every 30 seconds, and while it’s not fair to put all that on this team, it’s inescapable.

Zarar Siddiqi: Not worried about the starters. They’ve been bloodied enough the last few years that there should be no surprises in the post-season, and they’re mentally and physically equipped to handle the different type of basketball that’s on offer. The bench could be an issue because they haven’t necessarily gone through the same process as guys like DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas. Confidence is always a contextual thing – I mean, how confident I am whether they’ll handle LeBron vs Wall are two different things, but overall, whenever they step on the court there’s now a sense that the Raptors are the ones whose game it is to lose rather than the opposition, no matter who they’re playing.

Tim Chisholm: It’s grown considerably. I was very skeptical that Lowry, DeRozan, and even Casey were truly committed to changing the way that they wanted to, mostly because changing in the way that was being described was going to be incredibly difficult (a point further reenforced by the commendations the team has gotten this season for accomplishing it). However, they’re moving the ball, they are using the gravity of their stars to open up avenues for other people, the bench unit has capitalized on their D-League chemistry from last year, and all of this gives me a reason to be optimistic that this year will be different. What they did this season was sustainable, and should translate well into the Playoffs. Their over-reliance in the past on things like generous calls from officials and isolation ball from the stars was always doomed to handcuff them in the postseason. They’ve eliminated those things and we should see an improved Raptors in this April.

Katie Heindl: While all of those points are valid and true I think the reservations, the permeating anxiety that comes in sustaining confidence alongside this team, are at this point psychological. We’re all those rats who are expecting to get shocked when we go for the food pellet but we’re hungry so we’re going to go for the food pellet and hey, maybe this time we just get the reward, maybe this is the time we hesitantly reach out, expecting a different outcome, already wincing, and we don’t get shocked. This is so bleak. You see what the last four years have done? We want so badly to be confident but I think we all know what’s on the line, which is being called flukes at best and predictable at worst. But alright, the best thing about going into the postseason this year is that we as fans are all the headcases and the team, from the core to the bench to management, are finally the ones coaxing us to have some f…ing courage.

Sahal Abdi: It’s been a great season, indeed. I think the biggest difference between this team and past Raptor squads is a more obvious factor — the fact that the Raptors possess the NBA’s best roster depth. Toronto’s all-bench unit routinely proved throughout the season it had the ability to go toe-to-toe with opposing starters. Whether it be the Wizards (who some fans are frantically worried about, or another Eastern playoff team — Toronto will always have that 6th-10th man advantage). My confidence in this team is high, with almost every Raptor improving on an individual level and unreservedly buying into Casey’s pass-happy system this season.

Vivek Jacob: From where it was in the summer, a ton. I definitely had the I’ll believe it when I see it point of view when all the talk of ball movement and a more democratic playing style came about, and the pre-season seemed an extreme that wouldn’t last. With the tough schedule the Raptors had to open, there were bound to be some growing pains, but to see where they are now is remarkable. DeRozan taking on more of the primary ball handling responsibilities has worked to benefit Lowry. This will be the healthiest he’s been in the postseason, and I look forward to several KLOE performances. Valanciunas has been great despite the counting stats looking similar, and, finally, Dwane Casey has taken his game to another level. Can’t give him enough credit for churning out another stellar bench unit without the traditional Lowry+bench.

Matt Shantz: entered the season with reserved excitement. While I expected the Raptors to exceed their predicted win totals, and pass the Vegas over/under wins, I would have leaned closer to a 53 or 54 win season. To come away with 59 is beyond my wildest hopes, much like the internal development for our youth. Never would have guessed I’d be talking about Toronto and a possible trip to the Finals, as I thought the target year for a big run would be next season.

Louis Zatzman: My confidence in the Raptors has grown as much as my aloe vera plant, which desperately needs re-potting.

Joshua Howe: My confidence is sky high! If not this season, then when? All of the chips have fallen perfectly for the Raptors this season, and the core has been, of course, a major part of that. The question is whether or not the Raptors will play the style they’ve been playing all year when the going gets tough and the playoffs intensify—I have the utmost confidence that they will. This doesn’t mean absolutely zero isolation ball (sometimes big players need to hit big shots), but it means sticking to their guns and not falling into a long string of stagnant possessions. If they play how they’ve played this season, they should be fine. This is the best version of this core possible, a version I think many fans and pundits alike didn’t know existed. Yet here we are. What’s not to like?

Cam Dorrett: 60 wins would have been nice but insert something about “having your cake and eating it too” in here. This team is drastically different than the same group we’ve trotted out the last few playoffs and most of that has to do with attitude. Casey deserves all the praise in the world for changing the way this team plays, and that newfound confidence in each other should transfer well to playoff success.

Shyam Baskaran: Yes – but, that could easily change. The way Raptors play now is centred around shooting, passing, and ball movement – facets of the game that are inextricably tied to rhythm and confidence (especially for a team that plays through their bench and not always their stars). So, if they play with the same confidence and swagger they’ve been playing with in the regular season, they’ll be fine and will have a better post-season than in years past. If they waiver with their confidence, anything can happen. Let’s not forget that most of the bench contributors have been young guys in Fred, Delon Jakob and Pascal – all of whom have limited post-season experience. So expecting all of their performance to carry over in the post-season might be a stretch. Despite that, I feel much more confident than in past years.

Josh Weinstein: What a season it was. 59 wins, first-place in the East, another Atlantic Division title. A lot of people, including myself, thought this Raptors team was going to regress this season, mainly because of the team’s lack of roster turnover following a four-game sweep to the Cavs, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding an unproven, inexperienced group of reserves being thrust into important roles. Well, the bench easily outperformed initial expectations, DeMar DeRozan put forth another All-NBA caliber season, and the Raptors played ball-movement oriented basketball from Game 1 all the way until Game 82. Normally, the Raptors experience their fair share of adversity in the regular season. That wasn’t the case at all in 2017-18.

Gavin MacPherson: This is the first time that the Raptors go into the playoffs looking like a truly elite team. Even 2 years ago when they won 56 games they were still a clear cut below the league’s elite when you look at measures like SRS – they ranked 6th but their 4.08 was significantly lower than the top 4 teams, who ranged from 10.48 to 5.45. This year they’re 2nd in the league at 7.46. I’d say my expectations are high but my confidence is not based on past playoff performances. To put it another way, they’re good enough that I’m picking them to get out of the East but I’m not confident enough to put money on it.

Anthony Doyle: I didn’t trust the culture change to start the season. Figured it would last for a month or two, but when the rubber hit the road, they would regress into the same team they had been for years, and I was wrong. They’ve shown throughout the season that they can trust each other more than previous years, and they’re committed to playing team basketball. That gives me a lot of confidence going into the playoffs, combined with the way the bench proved all year that they show up for the biggest games. Against Houston, Cleveland, and Golden State, the bench had some of their best games of the season, and that also brings me confidence. This is a great basketball team, something that’s been hard to say about the Raptors teams of the past few years, and I’m confident they’ll continue to be that in the playoffs.

Cooper Smither: I’d say the group is far more versatile than they have been in the past and their top end talent looks like they’ve never performed better. They can go small, and have been even better when they are big. They have competent defenders on the wings, have some options against speedy ball handlers, can chase route-runners around screens, and have versatile looks at the big positions. They also have finally found complimentary players that have seemingly unwavering confidence to shoot when the stars create an advantage. That makes me pretty hopeful.

Blake Murphy: It’s grown immensely. That the Raptors have been able to change themselves so fundamentally, and do it so quickly and so completely, is truly remarkable. No matter how this season ultimately ends, I think the franchise can take some incredible lessons away from the growth of the past year and the general process of changing and improving themselves. It’s a heck of a life lesson and example to strive for. It should, in theory, make them a much better playoff team, too. That’s what all of this was for, after all. They weren’t adding threes and ball movement and empowering young players because the highlights look better and it’s cool to post Bench Mob stuff on social media. All of this happened with this moment in mind, and the Raptors are much more versatile offensively and more matchup-proof in general now. The only question left to ask, really, is whether all of this change has galvanized enough to where it’s instinct when things get tough.

The Raptors will draw the Wizards in round one. There was some disagreement on who the best matchup is for Toronto. Would you have preferred the Bucks or Heat here? Why or why not?

William Lou: I would have preferred either the Bucks or the Heat. The Bucks had the best player in the series, but they’re largely dysfunctional and predictable, whereas the Heat just play extremely hard but lack the talent to accomplish anything. The Wizards have proven performers and a collective attitude that somehow works in the playoffs. John Wall and Bradley Beal are both capable of taking over a game, Marcin Gortat sons Jonas Valanciunas every single time, and even someone like Markieff Morris can be dangerous given that he played Paul Millsap to an occasional standstill in last year’s playoffs.

Zarar Siddiqi: Like three years ago, I would have preferred the Bucks. I’m always weary of star calls in the playoffs and the Wizards have enough of those to cause issue. John Wall may have injury issues but he’s still capable of exploding, and Bradley Beal can give DeRozan fits defensively, like in playoffs past. The Heat seem to surprise the Raptors even when the Raptors know exactly what they’re about, and I don’t want to test those waters in the post-season, which leaves us with the Bucks. As much Tony Snell should be awarded the Gerald Henderson-award in perpetuity, I still feel they’re tad bit inexperienced and the Raptors would be able to out-experience them in tense, clutch moments.

Tim Chisholm: The Wizards and Bucks were both fine, to me. Both have played far below preseason expectations, and there is a lot less refinement for both clubs than they were thought to have, and neither one should have put much of a scare into Toronto. Miami was a different beast. I think Toronto would have beaten Miami, but Miami plays hard and physical and that is just not the kind of team you want to start the postseason playing against. That series would have been a slog. Washington is going to try and out-execute Toronto in an attempt to win, and I don’t think that they have a shot of doing that four times in seven games.

Katie Heindl: A part of me would have preferred the Heat if only for the very weird rivalry that was developing in real time between us and them, and that it might have given us some kind of sneering, snotty edge. But realistically, that was last year’s team who needed it. That and I relish any opportunity to see walking hairball Olynyk looking extremely aggrieved. The Wizards are fine. Anyone is fine. We have to play someone eventually so let’s just get this god damn thing started already.

Sahal Abdi: For Toronto, some may disagree but I think the Wizards were the best matchup possible. Yes, Miami doesn’t have the starpower and Milwaukee has lost a ton of questionable games this season, but Washington is in total disarray. The team chemistry isn’t there whatsoever, Gortat (really the entire Wizards team) and Wall settled a beef that still seems to be sizzling under the cracks and most importantly, who the hell is on Washington’s bench? Mike Scott? Satoransky? Mahinimi (who’s soul still lies in the palm of JV’s hand from that Indiana-Toronto series)? I mean, we’re probably going to see Wall, Beal and the rest of the starters play between 35-45 minutes per game just to keep themselves in it. Throw the history aside, and this to me, is the perfect matchup for Toronto.

Vivek Jacob: Think the Wizards present the toughest of the three matchups. Wall and Beal are capable of matching Toronto’s backcourt, Gortat has given Valanciunas problems in the past, and Otto Porter Jr. has historically defended DeRozan as well as anyone. They have established a reputation of at least being a very good first-round team with the Wall-Beal combo, tallying a 12-3 record in the opening round. Miami lack the stars and while we saw how physical they can be and that Wayne Ellington is capable of going off, I didn’t see how their offense could sustain against the Raptors over seven games. The Bucks are a mess to me. Something just isn’t quite right with them. Giannis Antetokounmpo has obviously developed his individual game by leaps and bounds but I still think there are strides to be taken in making his teammates better . They are atrocious defensively and I wouldn’t be surprised if Brad Stevens’ schemes are enough to get Boston past them.

Matt Shantz: Many of the problems facing the Wizards over the years has come down to effort and caring. They have good talent in their top 7, with two bona fide stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal. That is enough to worry me when they are put in a position to care more. In order of preference, I would have taken: 1) Heat (no top-tier player, and I won’t trust any team with Whiteside on it); 2) Bucks (Giannis with a poorly structured team around him, and a group that the Raptors seemed to largely figure out last spring); 3) Wizards.

Louis Zatzman: I don’t think the first round opponent matters terribly much. By all measures, the Raptors are a fantastic team and much better than past years’ iterations. The Bucks and the Wizards aren’t very good teams, at all. (The Heat, on the other hand, are scary.) The Raptors should handily beat whomever is thrown their way. Seeing as how the Raps will thrash their first-round opponents, I would like to see them exorcise their Wizard-related demons. I’m happy about the matchup.

Joshua Howe: To be completely honest, I’m not overly concerned about any first-round opponent, ludicrous as that may seem to the fans still suffering from the trauma Washington caused in postseasons past. Neither the Wizards nor the Bucks are good enough to handle the Raptors for seven games, and while the Heat also fall in that camp, they at least play a very physical brand of basketball (which we saw in the final regular season game) that could lead to unneeded injuries. Also, Wayne Ellington loves playing Toronto, apparently. So, call me crazy, but I’m fine with playing the Wiz.

Cam Dorrett: I know both parties are different than the sweep-that-shall-not-be-named but I would have preferred the Bucks OR Heat over the Wizards. The playoffs are determined by stars and we’ve seen what Bradley Beal and John Wall have done to the Raptors over the years. Kindly piss off already, Wiz.

Shyam Baskaran: No question, I would have preferred the Heat. Aside from potentially getting injured against their physical style of play, there’s nothing really scary about Miami. With the Wizards however, who have potentially the 2 best players in the series (on their best days), there’s certainly at least a little part in all of us that’s scared. The same thing goes with Milwaukee who, at the end of the day, still have an arguably top-5 player that can play close to 48 minutes each night. None of this is to say the Raptors haven’t been the superior team this season to all three of these teams (that’s obvious), but in a post-season context, I think Miami would’ve been the optimal choice.

Josh Weinstein: I think the Wizards are the best matchup for Toronto. Just to be clear, the Wizards have pretty much the exact same core they did back in 2015 when they swept the Raptors. One of the main differences this time around is how much stronger Toronto’s roster is. Not only have DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas taken massive strides in their development since that fateful four-game sweep, but the entire team as a whole has improved at every position and completely revamped its offensive style. Gone are Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams (who’s ISO ball destroyed the Raptors in the postseason), replaced by Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. Serge Ibaka is in for Amir Johnson. Pascal Siakam took Patrick Patterson’s minutes. You get the point. The Raptors are out for revenge, and they’ve got a great shot of righting their wrongs from 2015.

Gavin MacPherson: The Raptors are so good that any of the first round options should be a snack, I didn’t really have preference for which one they would get. If these Raptors struggle with an 8 seed it’ll be because of internal issues, not the opponent.

Anthony Doyle: The Bucks were probably the easiest matchup, with the way that they’ve shown to be dysfunctional this year and the questions about how their talent fits, and the Heat are probably the toughest with their veterans and Erik Spoelstra, who has proven to be a talented coach in the postseason. The Wizards sit somewhere in between as a team that doesn’t really function cohesively, but they still have enough talent to be dangerous if their opponent slips up. However, I don’t think any of those three teams are good enough to beat the Raptors without the Raptors helping them out, so I’m not sure that it should matter. This is really about the Raptors showing that they’re the same team in the postseason that they’ve been in the regular season, and that’s something they can do against any opponent. If the goal is a Finals run, as the team has said and the expectations should be, then they should be able to beat a flawed Wizards team.

Cooper Smither: Undoubtedly the Bucks for me. The Raptors main lineups have decimated Milwaukee’s and there wasn’t a ton of low hanging fruit for them to fix and solve that issue. Even from a simplistic point of view – Milwaukee is marginally better than last year at best and Toronto looks immeasurably better than they did in their 6-game series win.

The Wizards have been horribly inconsistent, but at their best, their top 7-ish players are a very complete group. There’s no obvious point of attack to leverage against them and they have high-end talent to buoy them in times of need. Obviously they aren’t that good on a consistent basis, but they at least have the potential to get there.

Blake Murphy: I would have preferred the Bucks, who are very good at employing Giannis Antetokounmpo and not particularly good at anything else. There’s always a risk in not having the best player in a series – rather than, say, two of the four All-Stars in the series – but Milwaukee is the worst team in the East playoff bracket. It would have been lower stress, even with the top-three MVP candidate on the other side. The Raptors should be confident regardless. There’s little statistical precedent for a team this good to get bounced in the first round, and the Raptors are the second-heaviest betting favorite of any first-round series. The Wizards are scary because they’re heavy on skill and their ceiling is that of an Eastern Conference Finals team, but they’re also a bit of a mess chemistry wise, have played two contrasting styles with and without John Wall, and have yet to flash that ceiling for more than a few moments at a time. Milwaukee would have been easier. I’m all for the narrative purpose Washington serves.

There seems to be a lot of palpable anxiety still hanging over a Wizards-Raptors matchup because of the sweep three years back. The Raptors have gone 14-4 against Washington in the regular season over the last five seasons, but a playoff 0-4 seems to carry a lot of weight to this day. Does this resonate at all to you in one direction or another?

William Lou: It does not. Regular season Wizards are the playoff Raptors. Don’t read too much into it.

Zarar Siddiqi: You can throw those numbers out the window. Because regular season.

Tim Chisholm: It goes to show how bad people are at understanding how to apply history to a current context. The Washington roster is nothing like the team they faced in 2015, nor are the Raptors. The Raptors limped into the Playoffs that year, going 13-16 after the All-Star break, with a roster that still included Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, and Tyler Hansbrough (whom they were starting). There were rifts in the locker room between some of the iso guys and the non-iso guys. Aside from the fact that some top-shelf players from both teams are still around, there is almost nothing about this series that mirrors the one from three years ago.

Katie Heindl: Again, there would be palpable anxiety over any matchup and memory is selective. The Game 1 shirts–spaghetti shoes and otherwise–carry more psychic weight for me than all the ways I cursed John Wall three years ago. It’s like if you’re ever trying to get a horse out of a burning barn, you just gotta tie something over its eyes and take it out of there. In this case we are the horse and the fire and the blindfold is a shirt with a shoe made out of spaghetti on it, tied around our faces.

Sahal Abdi: Hell no. Again, the Wizards hate each other. The Raptors love each other. Markieff Morris has borderline anger management, Wall publicly said he wanted PG13 (and/or Durant) in Washington to effectively replace Otto Porter (who’s a damn good player himself), plus there being countless reports over the years of dissension between John and other Wizards players. Let’s keep it real, these dudes barely snuck into the playoffs and all appear offline on their gaming consoles so John Wall doesn’t know they’re playing Fortnite squads together. This may very well be a competitive series to open the gates, but I don’t know which one I want to see more — the Raptors pull this series off with relative ease or the Wizards totally imploding and throwing Twitter subliminals at each other when this is over. Who knows? We might get lucky and have both come true.

Vivek Jacob: I think the one thing that still stands out vividly to me is a 21-year-old Bradley Beal absolutely looking the part and showing the post-season poise that Raptors fans have been clamoring for from their stars. Ironically, that is what I’ll be looking for from the Raptors here. Not necessarily from DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas, but Lowry needs to show he can consistently be KLOE on the biggest stage. Beyond that, the bench also has to continue to play with the energy and lack of fear they’ve shown throughout the 82 this year.

Matt Shantz: It’s tough to separate general playoff anxiety/fear from specific team fear. I think I’d be equally nervous no matter which of the three possible opponents were coming to town. Logically I know the Raptors are a far superior team than the Wizards, and should take this series easily, but I will always have some fear come playoff time. Years of disappointment and unmet expectations will do that to a person.

Louis Zatzman: Naaaahhhh. I don’t think playoffs are more predictive than regular seasons. Certainly, past years’ offensive struggles in the playoffs proved that the old style didn’t translate perfectly, but the Raptors have fully adopted their new offence. Even the stars. I don’t think the sweep means very much, as it was a different Raptors team playing a different style.

Joshua Howe: I’m over it. People want to zero in on this because the Raptors still have the same core and because Washington played Toronto well this regular season without John Wall. But while the Raptors do have the same core, that group has embraced playing an entirely new brand of basketball, allowing for the best of the old while giving them a new look. For example, DeMar DeRozan’s playmaking has never been this good, and it’s something that should almost certainly translate to the playoffs. They’ve also got more depth/switchability than ever before. I truly believe the expectations for this Raptors club should be high.

Cam Dorrett: Please read above and never ask me about the sweep again. Nah for real, the Wizards have been a catastrophe all season long. The Raptors are the #1 seed with the second-best record in the entire NBA. Let’s just get this done.

Shyam Baskaran: There’s no doubt it carries some weight. These are obviously different teams compared to back then, but the same core leaders for both teams remain firmly in place. And we all know the confidence of this Raptors team follows the lead of Lowry and DeRozan. It can work in the Raptors’ favour if they use it as motivation, but playoff basketball requires a ton of mental fortitude – and Washington’s irrational confidence is dangerous. It’s no secret that John Wall (and the whole Wizards team for that matter) has something to prove after an underwhelming regular season, and that should scare any playoff opponent. All things considered, the Raptors will probably be fine, but our first round matchup will be more stressful than we all might’ve imagined a few weeks ago.

Josh Weinstein: Initially, when the news broke that the Raptors were facing the Wizards again, my stomach sunk just a little bit. Could you blame me? Bringing up past demons is never easy. But then I came to my senses shortly after and realized that it’s been three years since the Raptors fateful collapse to the Wizards. Once I reassured myself that this Toronto team is leaps and bounds more talented than the 2014-15 Raptors, my stomach started to feel much better. This series will not be nearly as competitive as the last time these two organizations met in the postseason. Mark my words.

Gavin MacPherson: It’ll be nice to exorcise some demons but outside of that I’m not thinking about 2015 much. This Raptors team is very different from that one.

Anthony Doyle: I love the matchup because of that sweep, honestly. I think there’s a certain amount of narrative brilliance to the Raptors path to the Finals lining up to be against three of their greatest playoff villains of years past in Washington, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The Masai era has been about rebuilding confidence in the franchise and proving that they really have changed, as an organization, and aren’t making the same mistakes of years past. What better way to do that than to erase some awful playoff memories, from some of the hardest moments for Raptors fans, by providing newer and much more pleasant memories to replace them. At the same time, the three players who played in that series that are still on the roster, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, will be the leaders of this playoff run, and a big series win over a past rival should help them build their own confidence and propel the team forward.

Cooper Smither: They could have never played one another in the playoffs and I’d still be reasonably worried. Like I said, they are a very complete team when they are at their best – it’s just that their best doesn’t come around very often.

Blake Murphy: I would be breaking character if I wasn’t perpetually angsty, so there’s certainly some residual anxiety there. It’s minimal, though, and is more focused on how the team might react to a Game 1 loss and the spectre of “here we go again.” Honestly, though, given the reports coming out of Washington all year, Game 1 might be far more important for them from a psychological perspective. In any case, the Raptors are a far different team than 2014-15, only a handful of the pieces are the same for either side, and the Raptors have been through just about whatever the playoffs can throw at them by now. This team hasn’t lost three games in a row all year, let alone four. They’ll be fine.

The last two years at this time, nobody could help but talk about Norman Powell as a potential X-Factor, first against Indiana and then Milwaukee. Who are you looking at to provide that kind of deep or unexpected spark, if the Raptors need one here?

William Lou: Fred VanVleet will be called upon to contribute for both the bench and the closing lineup. Washington’s second unit is beyond putrid, and the second unit will need to pounce, much like in the 2016 Pacers series. Come time to close, the Raptors will need VanVleet’s on-ball defense against either Wall or Beal, which should allow DeMar DeRozan to hide on Otto Porter.

Zarar Siddiqi: Between Anunoby, Siakam and Poeltl, I’ll pick Anunoby because his quickless and tendency to leak out on the wings can be a momentum-shifter. He doesn’t have the scoring prowess that Norman-in-his-three-month-prime had, but he’s a quick learner, moves well without the ball and can get us a lot of buckets underneath if the D is focused on Lowry and DeRozan.

Tim Chisholm: Is Fred VanVleet still an X-Factor, or does his status as a fringe contender for Sixth Man nullify his X-Factor-ness? His temperament is such a huge part of what gets this team going, even if he doesn’t have as flashy an impact as Powell did in years past, there is a good chance the actual impact he has will be far greater. The biggest asset that Toronto has over Washington this year is the bench, and Van Vleet is the leader of that unit. Combine that with the fact that he’ll close most games, probably guarding John Wall or Bradley Beal, and he’ll be a huge determiner in what happens in this series.

Katie Heindl: Siakam and my countryman, Poeltl, but only when the sweetest and most determined angel to ever fall to earth, Fred VanVleet, needs a breather.

Sahal Abdi: This could be damn near anyone, not just bench players. I think Delon Wright is going to be extremely impactful in this series. He’s going to get a ton of opportunities to take on both Wall and Beal, and disrupt them with his length/peskiness defensively. We all know ‘playoff Beal’ is a whole different beast, while Wall can exert total dominance on a possession-to-possession basis. Wright’s going to have a huge responsibility on his hands, and Casey will undoubtedly put his total trust in the third-year guard.

Vivek Jacob: Pascal Siakam. The Wizards, like most teams, lack a big with the athleticism and speed to defend someone like him and he could and should be a difference maker. I expect teams to dare him to shoot from the outside now, but we’ve seen him use the space to build a head of steam and get to the basket as well. If he can knock down a few jumpers along the way, even better.

Matt Shantz: Perhaps it’s cheating to pick a starter, but I can’t help but think that OG Anunoby is what defines the Raptors ceiling. He’s the type of player the Raptors have been needing. Defensively, he provides someone who can cover almost anyone on the court when engaged, and the variance on his shooting just defines X-Factor. If he is hitting shots and disrupting the opponent’s best player on defence, then the Raptors are on the path to success.

Louis Zatzman: Bebe! Marcin Gortat has somehow always succeeded against the Raptors. He is a terrific screen-setter and roller, and that is a difficult defensive assignment for a Raptors big already asked to defend the ball-handler alone for a moment, with the original defender always going over screens. Enter Bebe. He has the length to trouble Gortat around the rim, and extra playmaking on the floor always seems to help the Raptors’ offence. If he gets any time, he should shine.

Joshua Howe: This is going to be a tough question to answer at any given time, since pretty much any member of the Bench Mob could go off and no one would really be shocked. Typically, I would pick Fred VanVleet, as he’s probably been the best bench guy this season. For this series, however, I’ll go with Jakob Poeltl. The Wizards are going to have trouble with size (which we’ll get into more in the next question), and Poeltl has been playing really well recently. I think he could do some serious damage.

Cam Dorrett: Fred VanVleet is the obvious choice, but he’s been such a model of consistency the entire season long it’s almost impossible to call him an x-factor, or unexpected. I’m eager to see Poeltl put in work on the defensive end and help defend the pick and roll. If he can rise to the occasion a few times on offence he could easily shift this series.

Shyam Baskaran: This is especially difficult to predict this year, because of our unprecedented depth. I’d probably have to say Fred. It’s an obvious answer, but in terms of impact off the bench, it’s the safest best (assuming he is healthy and ready to go). From the mental toughness, to the knockdown ability from deep, he just has a certain stability and knack to his game that sparks the rest of the lineup. The second potential guy I’d go with is Pascal, who’s length and effort level on defense is likely to translate into the post-season.

Josh Weinstein: Just to be clear, if I could choose the entire bench unit as an X-factor I would. But for the sake of this exercise, I have to single out Delon Wright as my X-factor. Wright’s ability to impact a game on both ends with his defensive length, playmaking, and shot making capabilities is well-documented. When he is in the zone, Wright has the potential to take over a game. The Raptors are hoping that if called upon, he can do just that.

Gavin MacPherson: If anyone provides an unexpected boost it’ll be Bebe. If the Raptors are sticking with their regular season rotation we should continue to expect contributions from everybody in that rotation so none of the regular bench unit would qualify and we’ve seen the impact Bebe can have a few times over the last couple of weeks.

Anthony Doyle: The guy who ended up with Norman Powell’s job, OG Anunoby. OG has been a defensive savant at points this season, he makes the starters better just by being on the court, and late in the season he showed signs of some real offensive depth in his game, in his ability to attack both off the dribble and also to cut and find lanes where he can score off the pass. He needs to play, as he’s the Raptors’ best option for chasing Bradley Beal around the court, and he needs to play more than just the minutes to start each half. OG has made virtually every lineup he’s been part of this season better, and it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of his offensive game. The better he is, the higher the ceiling for the Raptors is, and that starts with him getting regular minutes and the players around him taking advantage of his ability to influence the game at both ends of the floor.

Cooper Smither: Ironically, Powell might be it. He hasn’t really produced well in the matchups against Beal this year, but he’s one of their best defensive options against him from a theoretical perspective. Anunoby struggles when chasing players around off-ball screens. VanVleet’s done a reasonably good job against Beal so far, but he may not have the size to contest his around-the-basket game. Not enough film of Wright on Beal to conclude anything.

Other than that, Siakam and/or Poeltl could be pivotal. Washington has had a lot of success playing their starting frontcourt against Ibaka and Valanciunas. If Ibaka can handle Gortat, Siakam has been good enough against Morris to alleviate some of the pressure there. Alternatively, Poeltl might be their only option to show high against Wall and Beall off of perimeter screens.

Blake Murphy: This question has become tough to answer for the Raptors because where do you draw the line for “deep spark” or X-factor? Five bench players already average 19 minutes or more, and the Raptors were one of very few teams to play 11 players 1,000 minutes or more. It’s like the Gerald Henderson Award – there’s a line at which you’re not longer Gerald Henderson eligible. I won’t quibble with any other answers, and I actually think Norman Powell has a playoff moment again somewhere, but my answer, against my better judgment, is Lucas Nogueira. Nogueira is the Raptors’ knuckleballer, capable of dramatically swinging small stretches of play because what he does is so unique to the Raptors’ roster (and the center position in general). He had great net ratings on the year, the last 10 games, against the Wizards, and so on. Now, if he plays, things have gone awry, but I also don’t think the Wizards would have any answer to him as a lob threat, and he’s a good enough passer to help on those DeMar DeRozan traps. Is this picking with my heart over my head? Absolutely. Free Bebe. He’s really good.

What do you see as the Raptors’ biggest strength in this series? Their biggest weakness?

William Lou: The Raptors’ biggest strength is the advantage in the bench, along with the flexibility in the frontcourt. The right combination of Serge Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam can shut down Wall’s drives to the rim, which is half the battle with the Wizards.

Zarar Siddiqi: Strength: Experience, knowing how to pace themselves, DeRozan’s playmaking and our bench’s ability to spark the team and score. Weakness: Backcourt defense against off-the-ball movement.

Tim Chisholm: As I said above, I think their bench is their biggest strength. The Raptors run deep, which gives them a ton of versatility to throw at Washington’s rather predictable roster. Although another notable asset is team chemistry. This year, it’s Washington that is limping into the series, and they have struggled to re-integrate John Wall after his return from injury. Toronto has leaned on their chemistry all season, and there is no reason to expect it to fracture now. As for weaknesses? They’re pretty well known: their three-point shooting is terribly erratic, which could be a problem when Washington packs the paint and forces the Raptors to shoot, they give up tons of offensive rebounds, and John Wall can create havoc at the point of attack. However, I don’t think any of these issues are going to prove all that vexing against the Wizards.

Katie Heindl: Their biggest strength is the swarm of ghosts accumulated over the last four years breathing down their necks and their biggest weakness is probably you, me and everyone we know. We have got to get it together.

Sahal Abdi: It may sound like a broken record, but team depth is clearly the Raptors biggest strength and advantage (there’s also coaching, team chemistry, offense, defense and like, 20 other things). Both team’s starters can compete with any team in the league on any given night. On the other hand, Toronto’s biggest weakness may just lie in their lack of 3PT shooting ability. This isn’t something Toronto struggled badly with this season, however with the Raptors only rostering two pure 3PT shooters in Lowry and Miles — until ‘KLow’ can prove his percentages won’t take a massive dip in the playoffs, this will be it. Van Vleet can hold his own from the perimeter, but everyone else can build houses of bricks on any given night.

Vivek Jacob: The biggest strength remains the depth till they’re found out. Teams have attacked them with size down the stretch and the Wizards will be able to do that with a six-foot-seven backup point guard in Tomas Satoransky playing alongside guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mike Scott. Their biggest weakness is the outside shooting. The Raptors are dependent on Lowry, Miles, VanVleet and Ibaka for their volume three-point attempts and so it’s critical that at least two of them are firing in each game. The Wizards allow an average of 29 three-point attempts a game and while Toronto managed to do that over the course of their four games, they only made 29.6 percent of their attempts.

Matt Shantz: Depth. The Raptors have it. The Wizards are desperate enough to find it that they signed Ty Lawson yesterday. Washington should very happily shorten their rotation to 7 or 8 to try and exploit their top talent, but the Raptors’ can run 10 deep and will hopefully wear down a thinner team. The only players on Toronto to have a lower net rating than Otto Porter (Wizards best 5.0, minimum 2 games played) are Malcolm Miller, Norman Powell, and Alfonzo McKinnie.

Louis Zatzman: Their biggest strength is being a much better team. Their biggest weakness is…. probably the fact of 2 of their 4 rotation wings aren’t able to handle Bradley Beal, like, at all. But Dwane Casey has more than enough defensive skill and length to throw at Beal with OG and Norm, so I’m not expecting to see many (or any) minutes with DeRozan or Miles matched up there.

Joshua Howe: The Raptors’ biggest strength in this series will be their size and rebounding ability. The Wizards don’t have much of either—their best big, Marcin Gortat, isn’t a great rim protector, and other than the Polish Hammer they don’t have too many options to match with Toronto size-wise. The Wiz rank 21st in the league in rebounds this season, and 22nd in blocked shots. This also means that the Raptors’ wings should be driving into the paint whenever possible, looking to score at the rim. Washington allows 66 per cent shooting in the restricted area. As for weaknesses, the Raptors will have to look to contain penetration from Wall and contest three-point shooters. Washington is a really good shooting team from distance (fourth overall in three-point percentage), but they don’t take very many (23rd in attempts). That doesn’t mean that they can’t get hot, however, and guys like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter can go off at any time to effectively swing a game.

Cam Dorrett: Strength: Depth. The Wizards should have no answer for the bench in this series. Weakness: Depth…The Wizards might just ride their stars to another upset. So help me.

Shyam Baskaran: The strength is obvious – it’s the Raptors’ bench. Toronto has the best bench (in terms of net rating, at 8.3) in the league, by far (almost 2 points per 100 possessions better than Houston). Washington ranked 18th in bench net rating in the league (-2.6). The Wizards starters might be scary, but Kelly Oubre Jr., Tomas Satoransky, and company aren’t likely to outplay their Raptors counterparts. The Raptors’ biggest weakness (hate to say it) will probably be their defense on Wall and Beal. Great offense tends to beat great defense in the biggest moments, and bad matchups against top-tier wing scorers like Paul George and Bradley Beal have wreaked havoc for the Raptors in the past – unless Norm comes in and saves the day again, it’s likely the Raptors could get outplayed in the backcourt for a few games in the series.

Josh Weinstein: The bench is undoubtedly the Raptors biggest advantage heading into this series. Look for the Raptors to take advantage of their personnel advantage early in the second and fourth quarters when the reserves are on the court. The bench has helped the Raptors grow comfortable leads into insurmountable ones time and time again this season. Expect them to have a similar impact against the Wizards.

Gavin MacPherson: The Raptors size and depth are their biggest strengths in this series. The starting backcourt talent can be said to be pretty even but the Raptors boast the two(maybe even three) best centers in the series and they might even have the two best power forwards depending on how high you are on Markieff Morris. The Raptors biggest weakness is their late game play – they seem to abandon most of what works for them strategically and rely on pure talent to win out which has caused problems all season long. The Raptors are a better, more cohesive team than the Wizards, if they let it come down to Beal and Wall vs Lowry and DeRozan in crunch time they may end up losing those battles.

Anthony Doyle: Their biggest strength is that they’re just a better team, top to bottom. Kyle Lowry is the best player in this series, and the Raptors bench is a much stronger unit than the Wizards’. They’re a cohesive unit that celebrates each others’ success, and the same can’t be said for the Wizards. The Raptors have one of the best starting lineups in the league, and the best bench in the league, and with the possibility of opening up the minutes for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan more in the postseason, the ability to build some really dangerous transitional lineups as both players have had success when playing with the bench this season, in small sample sizes. The name power of John Wall and Bradley Beal does lend the talent of Washington some credence, and both players are capable stars, but the Raptors are the more talented team.

The Raptors’ biggest weakness is that, at times, their rotation doesn’t do the best job using their talent to create advantages. The Raptors need to provide Jonas Valanciunas with frequent minutes and opportunities to attack the mismatches that will be present, and they need to put their role players in positions to succeed. Also, Dwane Casey has to be mindful of the long stretches of continuous play that he sometimes ends up with his bench players playing, as it can result in them wearing down towards the end of halves. With this much depth on the roster, there’s always a player who can provide a breather for a guy who has been out there too long.

Cooper Smither: Strength wise, the Raptors have had a lot of success this season when Otto Porter Jr. defends DeMar DeRozan. He’s their best bet to guard DeRozan, and if he’s unable to, they probably don’t have an answer for him aside from a very inconsistent Kelly Oubre Jr. or an overextended Bradley Beal. Even when they inevitably show DeRozan a lot of pressure in pick and roll, his passing has been very good (at times) to finally beat those coverages.

On the potential weakness side, Valanciunas’ defensive improvements are going to be tested against Wall and Beal in any type of perimeter screening action. Offensively, the Raptors crater without his screening ability in close games, but he’ll need to stay on the floor for that to be of use. Other than that, finding a defensive pairing for Wall and Beal while maintaining the core offensive lineups will be difficult.

Blake Murphy: The Raptors biggest strength here is their versatility. “Depth” is another way to put it, and in using 11 guys regularly all year, I think a byproduct of that depth is that the Raptors grew comfortable playing a few different ways. They’re very good big, they can be great defensively small, they can play two, even three point guards in some matchups, and so on. The Wizards only run nine deep and can only really play two ways: Their starters, or their starters slightly downsized, and the Raptors can match either of those on personnel terms and throw some other looks at the Wizards to shake things up. The Raptors’ biggest weakness here is probably their high screen-and-roll defense, even though they finished in the top 10 defending both the roll-man and the ball-handler. Washington is just a team built to take advantage of what Toronto’s scheme presents, and John Wall and Bradley Beal are tough covers for even a solid rotation of backcourt defenders and rim protectors. You can consider this more a Washington strength than a Toronto weakness, I guess.

Call it.

William Lou: Raptors in 6.

Zarar Siddiqi: Heart: Raptors in 5. Head: Raptors in 7. I’ll listen to my heart.

Tim Chisholm: Raptors in 6.

Katie Heindl: Loss of social skills and healthy habits in 2, Raps in 6.

Sahal Abdi: Toronto takes G1 (going out here on a serious limb), G2, G4 and G5. I’m calling Raptors in a five-game series.

Vivek Jacob: Raptors in six.It’s been a great season, indeed. I think the biggest difference between this team and past Raptor squads is a more obvious factor — the fact that the Raptors possess the NBA’s best roster depth. Toronto’s all-bench unit routinely proved throughout the season it had the ability to go toe-to-toe with opposing starters. Whether it be the Wizards (who some fans are frantically worried about, or another Eastern playoff team — Toronto will always have that 6th-10th man advantage). My confidence in this team is high, with almost every Raptor improving on an individual level and unreservedly buying into Casey’s pass-happy system this season.

Matt Shantz: Raptors win 4-1 in a gentleman’s sweep. I’m giving Beal and Wall the benefit of the doubt in saying they can steal a game in Washington, but the Raptors are far and away the better team.

Louis Zatzman: Raps in 5.

Joshua Howe: Raptors in five.

Cam Dorrett: Washington steals one at home, Toronto in Five.

Shyam Baskaran: Raps in 7.

Josh Weinstein: Raptors in 5. Toronto is finally ready to win a series in less than six games. Take it to the bank!

Gavin MacPherson: 4-1. The Raptors have been a great team for most of the year and even with Wall in the lineup the Wizards have been mediocre. We shouldn’t be putting too much stock in the Raptors past shortcomings, they’re one of the top teams in the league right now until proven otherwise.

Anthony Doyle: My heart says a Raptors sweep. The talent disparity is there, the home court advantage is a huge deal, with the Raptors having been the best home team in the league this season by net rating, and I don’t trust the Wizards at all. This is the year I think the Raptors finally dispel their playoff demons and find real playoff success. However, my head says that the tendency of the Raptors to do some strange rotational stuff that costs them important minutes could come into play in this series, and so I’ll say the Raptors in five games, after the Wizards win a weird one in Washington.

Cooper Smither: I’m a pessimist – Raptors in 7.

Blake Murphy: Left brain says Raptors in 5, right brain says Raptors in 6, galaxy brain says Drake drops a Wale dis track with a Devlin verse at halftime of Game 1.

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