Game 1, Sat. April 18, Washington at Toronto, 12:30 p.m.
The Raptors (49-33) finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and have drawn the Wizards (46-36) in the first round of the playoffs. Both squads are not that far apart in record, so at first glance it seems like they will be well matched up, and headed for a tightly contested postseason battle. The last two times these teams met, it came down to the wire. The last game was decided by a late shot which sent the game into overtime, needing DeMar DeRozan to hit a late-game jumper over notorious Raptor-killer Paul Pierce.
Talking about Pierce, the veteran already rubbed Raps fans the wrong way with his trash-talking. Pierce, whose series-ending block of Kyle Lowry last year (when Pierce played for Brooklyn) is still fresh in Toronto’s mind, and local media won’t forget when he said that he doesn’t feel that Toronto has the “it” factor to be a real contender in the playoffs. The Raps will definitely have a response this time around.
In light of these comments Kyle Lowry responded back to Pierce pointedly, in the team’s locker room after Wednesday’s game against Charlotte. “Yes, we do.”
“Paul Pierce has always got to say something,” DeRozan fired back after the Raptors’ win on Wednesday. “He said something last year. He’s always got to say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he says.” DeRozan added that Pierce and the Wizards will soon discover what “it” means.
Discover what “it” means…
Toronto’s real response will come in its offense. The Raptors are averaging 104 points per game, the most in the Eastern Conference. If the Raptors’ offense can stay strong in the postseason, they’ll go far. Another huge advantage is Toronto’s home court at Air Canada Centre. The Raps play really well in front of a home audience, but what is key in this series for the Raps to win is that the Wizards play very badly on the road. Washington’s record is 17-24 record when playing away from Verizon Center. Toronto has also dominated them 3-0 in the season series. They no players listed on their injury report either which means they will hit the court full strength. Their key players, Kyle Lowry is averaging 17.8 points and 6.8 assists per game and DeMar DeRozan is leading the team in scoring with an average of 20.1 PPG.
Lowry, played 37 minutes in Wednesday’s game against Charlotte after sitting out nine games with a back injury. He found his touch on the long ball finishing the night with a game-high 26 points, shooting six-of-nine from beyond the arc. Coach Dwane Casey said after the game, “He needed that tonight, to see the ball going through the hole. He was getting his legs and conditioning back and he was doing a good job.”
Toronto also has a cohesive and productive second unit, with Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and James Johnson all capable of relieving the starters from the bench. But the key to winning this series it to attack first and, ultimately it will have to be the Raptors’ first five to not only start strong, but close out games as well without backing down.
The most exciting matchups to watch out for will be with the guards. Lowry is back from injury and DeRozan has been impressive in the final stretch of the regular season picking up the slack. They will be tested by Washington’s explosive duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal but should be able to give them an equally dynamic response.
When asked about the new franchise win record, postgame Wednesday, DeRozan said, “It means everything to me, me personally,” who has played his entire, six-year career for Toronto. “I’ve been here through it all. I grew up here, so everything we do means a lot to me, because I feel like I played a big role in doing that.”
On the verge of the postseason, Casey told media he’s getting happier with the Raptors’ defence, which he’s been repeatedly saying needs work if the team is going to make it to the next round. When reporters asked if he thought his team was ready, Casey replied, “If we’re not ready then it’s a little late right now,” he said. “I like our defensive focus, we’re getting a little bit better . . . We’re not satisfied. We’re not done yet. The real season starts this weekend.”
Lowry felt the same way as his coach. “This is what we practise for, we work out and train for in the summer time,” he said. “We’re at this point now, this is where we have to turn it up.” Expect the heat to be turned up to maximum as the Raps look ready to burn their way through round one.
Our Pick for Game One: Raptors over Wizards, 103-96