Pre-Game

Gameday: Wizards @ Raptors, Game 1, April 14

Game 1 of Round 1 – Time to exorcise those ghosts and make a statement

play·off : series of contests played to determine the winner of a championship

Welcome to the 2018 NBA Playoffs and game one of the first round series between the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. Following the best season in franchise history the east’s top ranked Raptors are determined to showcase their prowess in the postseason while exorcising demons and silencing their critics in the process.

For Raptors fanatics this season was nothing short of magical. Having endured ample mediocre years, copious disappointments and the isolation ball era this truly was a season to be cherished. As the 2018 playoffs tip off Toronto’s eastern counterparts all enter with various issues or injuries. Boston lost Kyrie Irving,  LeBron James‘ Cavaliers rank 28th defensively and have key contributors with little to no playoff experience. Likewise, the Sixers despite finishing on a blazing 16 game win streak will rely on two stars in their first playoffs.

The rest of the field has either failed to live up to expectations (Wizards, Bucks) have no true stars (Heat – sorry DWade, but those days have passed) or lack experience as a unit (Pacers). In their history there has never been a better opportunity or clearer path to seize the moment for a deep run and dare I say book a ticket to the finals.

Obviously the goal is finals or bust, but lets not put the cart before the horse. In a season where franchise benchmarks were set and a multitude of firsts collected there remains one major obstacle to overcome – winning game one on the home court!

Notably, check the document end for relevant article links as Blake Murphy did an incredibly thorough job prepping fans for the series. If you want to know everything prior to tip these are all must read.

With that, let’s jump into the game one preview. and my definition (pun intended) for keys to the game.

cul·ture –  arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively

A year after Masai Ujiri called for a culture reset few could have imagined precisely how much Toronto would change and how successful they would be in doing so. Certainly, there was reason to take the new direction, but implementing it as quickly as they have is the truly remarkable part of this equation.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had to buy into the new pass friendly offense and do so while getting less shots and having the offense go through others hands. Credit to both All-Star guards for embracing the system change and making sure to implement it. To wit, Lowry enters this playoffs having played 5.2 minutes less per game this season, but still ranking in the top 20 assists. DeRozan has a new career high in assists.

The results are palpable:

  • Toronto rank 6th in assists with 24.3 per game | ranked 30th with 18.5 in 2016-17
  • Rank 11th in assist percentage (59%) | ranked 30th (47.2%) in 2016-17
  • Assist to turnover ranks 4th (1.82) | in 2016-17 ranked 25th (1.46)
  • Assist ratio of 18.1 ranks 6th |14.1 assist ratio in 2016-17 ranked 29th
  • Rank tied 4th in the hockey assist | 2016-17 ranked 27th

his·to·ry –  study of past events

Throw out the narrative surrounding the Raptors being swept by the Wizards three seasons ago. Let’s start with the rosters. Three core players remain the same and coincidentally it just happens they are mirrored positions (starting backcourt and center). The rest of the rosters however, is vastly different.

For example Tyler Hansbrough and Gravy Vasquez were part of that Raptors squad as was Lou Williams who disappeared in that series. As for Washington, lest we forget Paul (I don’t have “IT” as a TV announcer) was still effective as a player and able to capitalize on his skillset in the playoffs half court pace.

re·demp·tion – action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.

The Raptors are downplaying the sweep of 2014-15 (as they should – this is a different team). Moreover, neither DeRozan or Lowry have bit on Shaquille O’Neal‘s weekly dis of the Raptors (straight up calling Lowry and DeRozan chokers), Paul Pierce‘s frequent ‘they don’t have it’ diatribes or Chris Webber‘s comments the Wizards purposely lost to get the Raptors. But, don’t assume they aren’t aware of these comments.

This Raptors team and specifically the core play best when they feel disrespected and counted out. So from this scribes perspective, I hope people keep talking, it should serve as extra fuel for the team to prove them wrong.

con·ti·nu·i·ty – unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over a period of time.

Both squads return with relatively similar rosters as last season. Although the major difference is obviously style tweaks for Toronto. The other major difference is the reserve unit, or more specifically the use of the reserve unit. Dwane Casey utilized his bench consistently going 12 deep, not only awarding them consistent minutes, but by putting them in clutch time situations. Conversely, Scott Brooks utilized his bench more consistently when John Wall was out injured.

con·sist·en·cy – conformity in the application of something, typically that which is necessary for the sake of logic, accuracy, or fairness.

Toronto is the only NBA team not to lose three games in a row all season. And, while there may have been some angst over the few games following the 11-game win streak and securing the top seed it was understandable given every team has segments of down time in season. How they finished the season holding the Celtics and Pacers to season low scoring outputs is more a testament of this squads consistency.

chem·is·try – complex emotional or psychological interaction between two people

To say the chemistry of Washington is tenuous is a gross understatement. There was the much discussed closed door players meeting held with the team coming out of it in greater disarray then they entered. Bradley Beal‘s cryptic ‘everyone eats’ comment spoke perhaps subconsciously of issues with Wall and then the media fueled the trouble by suggesting the Wizards were better without Wall.

Toronto fans are well aware of how the media’s take on situations can be narrow in focus. For example, the take of the Raptors being chokers who can’t win in the postseason. These same pundits are ignoring injuries and specific facts which could easily spin this narrative another direction. The most poignant fact is the Raptors have won the third most playoff games the last two seasons. The two teams ahead of Toronto? — The last two champions.

In spite of knowing not everything is always as reported, the reality is the Wizards issues off the court seeped onto the hardwood as they lost 14 of their final 21 games.

swag·ger – walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way

Deebo’s ready for that @aircanadacentre atmosphere. #WeTheNorth

A post shared by Toronto Raptors (@raptors) on

clutch –  denoting or occurring in a critical situation in which the outcome of a game or competition is at stake.

Of the few areas cited as a potential issue for Toronto, performance in clutch time situations arises. Yet, let’s be fair here because the sample size for the Raptors is so much smaller given they weren’t in a lot of games in the clutch. Perhaps a better measuring stick would be how often the Raptors led in games and closed out with that lead.

From my perspective this was another area of growth for Toronto. In seasons past, arguably the reason the Raptors were in so many “true clutch situations” (ie: game within 5 points in final minutes of fourth quarter) was either because they coughed up a lead or had to catch up.

Despite not being in a ton of true clutch time situations DeRozan still managed to finish second in clutch scoring. Who was first you ask – LeBron James.

re·serve – a supply of a commodity not needed for immediate use but available if required.

Casey response to shortening his rotation in the postseason was a straight up – nope. Going with the ‘if it ain’t broke….’ analogy is the perfect assessment here. Not only is the Raptors bench their x-factor I dare you to ask 10 people who the x-factor for the playoffs will be. I asked 10 of the BBoyz and they each had a different answer. The key here is not only are the Raptors deep, they are versatile. A quick look at the season series highlights Fred VanVleet and Bebe Nogueira producing the best plus/minus differential and those two may well be the guys in this series.

Should the series go longer than expected then this is where the reserves pay dividends. That’s because Scoot Brooks will likely shorten his bench upping all his starters minutes. Part of this is due to the lack of depth on the Wizards. Funny thing is a couple of the Wizards reserves have produced big nights against the Raptors.

Jodie Meeks was one (remember when he played for Orlando and he got into Lowry, resulting in the bear being awoken?). But, Meeks won’t be a factor due to suspension. Mike Scott is another reserve who is hit or miss for Washington, but he’s still out, having not progressed very far in the concussion protocol program as of this writing.

pe·rim·e·ter – continuous line forming the boundary of a closed geometric figure

The other key area Toronto changed as part of the culture reset was perimeter shooting in terms of making it a priority. Comparing the stats from last year’s playoffs to this season highlights precisely how much the squad took the mandate to heart. The team gets up 9.5 more three point attempts, makes four more per game and is connecting with 3.6% (35.8%) higher efficiency.

ver·sa·til·i·ty – ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities

Of all the advantages the Raptors have over the Wizards (or virtually 13 of the 15 other playoff squads) versatility is by far the number one asset. It goes beyond simply stating the team is deep. Yes, it is, but more accurately it is the characteristics of that depth which stand out. Even adding G-League MVP Lorenzo Brown to the team gives the Raptors four point guards, all of whom are above average defenders and playmakers.

Their front court depth offers rim protectors, defenders, floor spacers, speed and scoring. Other than a lock down LeBron type defender this team has it all. Then again, besides Kawhi Leonard is there a player in the NBA who could be deemed a LeBron stopper?

Granted the Wizards backcourt will be problematic, and Washington’s offensive style tends to play directly into what the Raptors will allow defensively. Still, considering how many teams have players who can defend OR can score the fact the Raptors have so much depth and versatility should be the key to the series.

ex·pec·ta·tion –  a belief that someone will or should achieve something

The most perplexing matchup in this series will be Jonas Valanciunas versus Marcin Gortat. Perplexing because theoretically JV should dominate this matchup. Never mind the Wizards barely let Gortat touch the ball, but JV is simply a fundamentally more skilled offensive player with versatility and has the size to handle Gortat in the post.

At least when Aron Baynes was feasting on JV in the one Boston game it was somewhat understandable because he was hitting shots he never hits , let alone takes and he has size.

Which JV the Raptors get in this series will be key. We’ve witnessed him come out and beast in an opening game (Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat) versus the more passive lost on pick and roll defense version (Cleveland x 2). Still, I’d be surprised if Lowry and DeRozan don’t feed him early to get him rolling and also potentially get Gortat in foul trouble.

ad·ver·si·ty – difficulties; misfortune, “resilience in the face of adversity”

Clearly, each game and the series will present moments for the teams to deal with adversity. At series start health may be serving up the first adversity as Fred VanVleet’s shoulder may keep him from playing, at least the first game.

The Wizards who already have depth issues enter with several question marks. John Wall has played four games since his return from the knee procedure. Most concerning is Otto Porter‘s calf and whether he is 100 percent.

dom·i·nant – most important, powerful, or influential a dominant thing, in particular.

As noted in the charts below and the Blake’s pieces I”ve linked at the bottom the Raptors are the clearly dominant squad. For stat heads the other must read piece comes courtesy of the stats master John Schuhmann.

X fac·tor – a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome

Picking an x-factor for Toronto is akin to asking which child is your favorite or which Tom Hardy role is your favorite. Each of the Raptors bench mob represents an advantage. Delon Wright is surging in confidence, elder statesmen C.J. Miles provides floor spacing, Fred VanVleet and Lucas Nogueira both registered huge differentials in the four games the teams played this year. Jakob Poeltl  and Pascal Siakam can stop teams cold and Norman Powell seemed to be rounding into form as the season came to a close. Let’s just say I won’t be surprised if Scott Brooks spends his five games (subtle pick inserted) making adjustments only to have another issue arise. Much like sealing leaks in a boat only to have another spew water.

As for the Wizards, I’m hard pressed to find an x-factor since Mike Scott is probably the closest if he can pass the concussion  protocol to get on the court.

lead·er – person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.

DeRozan’s three point efficiency is almost 5 percent better than last season. By no means is he a perimeter sniper, but he’s tended to hit shots from beyond the arc in the biggest games this season. Also of note, he trailed off a bit in the latter half, but I’ve wondered how fatigued he is flying back and forth to see his father (sending healing vibes his way).

Arguably DeRozan’s greater impact came via his playmaking (assists up to career high of 5.2 per game), his decision making and his improved defense.  And, of course with so many youngsters on the squad clearly DeRozan’s leadership (and Lowry’s) is a defining factor. In the recent GQ article ‘Sweet Lou’ Williams sang DeRozan’s praises.

You’ve played on a bunch of teams throughout your career. Who is your favorite teammate?

DeMar DeRozan. He’s the coolest person in the world the most down-to-earth and supportive teammate I’ve had in my career. I was at a bit of a crossroads in my career when I came to Toronto. DeMar and Kyle [Lowry] were the people that really lifted me up. I respect them for that.

hy·brid – of mixed character; composed of mixed parts

While the depth and bench mob is Toronto’s greatest strength in my humble opinion their versatility is their true advantage. More specifically, if you examine the fourth quarter dominance of the Raptors it’s often the hybrid unit on the floor. This hybrid unit is comprised (in most cases) with Lowry, DeRozan and then three others, generally one other starter and two reserves.

That’s the beauty of the Raptors depth in any given game or matchup Casey can tap the player(s) who are excelling on that night or serve a specific purpose. Most nights that unit also features Fred VanVleet, but each of the bench mob have spent time in this crucial frame. Lately, it has been Lowry, VanVleet, DeRozan, Siakam and Ibaka (or Poeltl).

Scott Brooks can barely go seven deep with Mike Scott out, so his response will either lead to a huge advantage for the Raptors or it will require his starters to play at least 40 minutes. The latter, is more likely the case.

sta·tis·tics – practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities

One glance at the following chart points to the Raptors overall skills and why they are considered favorites. Diving deeper it’s interesting to note the Raptors aren’t just better in the key stat categories (offense, defense, net rating) they are dominant. The Wizards rank in the middle. The presumption could naturally lean toward the Wizards being without John Wall for a large portion of the season. However, the Wizards had at least segments without Wall where they improved. To suggest the Wizards are better without Wall is inane. Rather, this might once again point to the larger issue on the Wizards which inevitably comes back to chemistry.

In the few categories the Wizards rank higher only one (opponent turnover percent) is significant. Granted, that’s a major category and the Raptors will need to be cognizant of this because Wall will take off like a dart in those situations. This points to two things the Raptors need to do well – protect the ball and be solid in transition defense.

In terms of performance by possession, again the Raptors dominate the Wizards. Logically with John Wall’s speed and ability to drive, those categories rank high for the Wizards. Examining where the Wizards are besting the Raptors it is somewhat ironic to note the isolation category. This points to the culture reset with Toronto moving away from iso-ball while the Wizards rank top ten in this category. And, as Blake has pointed out repeatedly, the Raptors isolation numbers were overstated even in the ‘isolation years’.

statement – a definite or clear expression of something

As Kyle Lowry said at the media session in reference to game one, “This is our game seven, we’re treating it like a game seven.”  The truth of the matter is in a seven game series losing game one doesn’t mean Toronto won’t win the series. There is more pressure on this game simply because the team hasn’t won the first game on their home court (ever) and only once in their playoff history. The irony of this situation is most of the players on this team weren’t even on the squad when those losses occurred.

Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas were part of the squads who lost several of those first games, but the majority of the players weren’t even aware of this being ‘a thing’. Ultimately, calling it a game seven may put extra pressure on the team to win. Then again, it also will force the players to come out aggressive and focused. If for no other reason than to remove this narrative from the talking heads it would behoove the team to check off one more ‘first’ from the list.

Rotations:

TORONTO RAPTORS STARTING 5:
Point Guard:Kyle Lowry
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan
Small Forward: OG Anunoby
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka
Center:Jonas Valanciunas

TORONTO RAPTORS RESERVES:
Point Guard: Fred VanVleet,  Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
Shooting Guard:  Norman Powell
Small Forward: C.J. Miles
Power ForwardPascal Siakam
Center: Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira

Injuries: 

  • Fred VanVleet is listed as questionable after the hard hit he took in Miami from Bam Bam (l love that kid, but did you have to do that to our Freddy just prior to the playoffs?)
  • As per Blake’s practice notes it seems Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira (hamstring tightness), Serge Ibaka (face) and Pascal Siakam (shoulder) were all seemingly good to go. By the by, when did Siakam hurt his shoulder? The takeaway here is, for everyone who suggested Miami might have been a better first round matchup. it does point to how physical the series would’ve been. Bank on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (when he returns) getting a taste of Heat playoff physicality.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: John Wall
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal
Small Forward: *Otto Porter Jr.
Power Forward: Markieff Morris
Center: Marcin Gortat

WASHINGTON WIZARDS RESERVES:

Point Guard:  Tomas Satoransky, Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions
Shooting Guard: Ty Lawson
Small Forward: Kelly Oubre
Power Forward: Chris McCullough
Center:  Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith

Injuries/Out: 

  • Mike Scott (concussion protocol)
  • Otto Porter Jr. – although he’s listed as questionable, it’s likely he plays. That said, calf injuries are tricky and given his main assignment will be on DeRozan keep an eye out for his lateral movement and whether the calf injury causes any issues with his cutting and drives.
  • Jodie Meeks tested positive for ipamorelin and Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide 2 and was subsequently suspended 25 games.

Game Details:

Venue: Air Canada Center

Time: 5:30 p.m. ET

TV: Sportsnet One in Canada, ESPN in U.S.

Series Schedule:

The Line:

The oddsmakers have jumped aboard the Raptors train which isn’t surprising given their top Eastern Conference seeding and second overall NBA ranking. The line opens with Toronto favored by 8 points and an over under of 211 points. In terms of the series the Raptors are also favored and most betting sites have Toronto ranked fourth to win the title.

Game 1 Odds: Raptors -8 | over/under 211
NBA Series Odds: Raptors -590 | Wizards +485
NBA Championship Odds: Raptors +850 |Wizards +10000

Relevant Reading List:

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