Coming off an ugly loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Washington Wizards have a great opportunity to get back on track as they host the Toronto Raptors. Now that Al Horford is done of the year, the Raptors are probably the best team in the East not named the Pacers or the Heat. If Washington's going to take that title from them, they need to bring their A game tonight.
Where and when? Gametime is 7 p.m. at the Verizon Center.
Are they good? Believe it or not, despite the loss of Rudy Gay, the Raptors are solid right now and have a good shot at finishing third in the East this year. They're only 15-15 on the year but have won four in a row and have won nine of their 12 games since flipping Gay for a couple of role players and eight of their last ten since Greivis Vasques, John Salmons and Patrick Patterson began to suit up for the team. Dwane Casey deserves props here, as despite the team's youth and the lack of an ingrained winning culture, they're eighth in the NBA in defensive rating.
Who's out? Toronto is healthy while Washington is going to be missing Glen Rice, Jr. and Al Harrington.
What are they good at? Toronto has plus athletes at all five positions and, as a result, get to the line at a high rate (eighth in the NBA in free throw rate) and cause a lot of turnovers (fourth in the NBA in opponent turnover percentage). Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson all good at blocking shots and playing the passing lanes, using their quickness and leaping ability to full effect. Meanwhile, Derozan has blossomed into one of the more underrated scorers in the NBA this season, averaging 20.9 points per game while managing to get a decent shot off almost any time he wants largely due to this size and hops. He can also do this.
What are they bad at? Losing games. The Raptors are a very solid team with some promising young pieces, yet they're limited as far as their long-term upside. This is a team that should contend for a playoff spot for the next five years but, without the kind of franchise player that more often than not needs to be drafted, they're unlikely to be much more than a 45 or 50 win team. They could benefit from one more high draft pick, one that would ideally be used on an elite point guard. As it is, they'll probably pick in the late teens in 2014 so they could always play out the string this year and attempt to package their pick and a few assets for an upgrade over Lowry.
How does Amir Johnson do it? Johnson is one of the less heralded players in the NBA, yet he's consistently one of the league leaders in almost every advanced statistical metric. Essentially, Johnson is a player who knows his strengths and does his best to play to them. He's an excellent finisher around the basket who's become one of the league's better jump shooters, and have never shot below 55% in an entire season. He's also a good rebounder and a long, mobile defender who's good at getting moving his feet while picking up blocks and steals without gambling too much. In short, he's an efficient player and almost the anti-Rudy Gay in that he does a lot to help his team win even though it's easy to not even notice he's on the court.
Who gon' win? My head says the Raptors, my heart says the Wizards. Washington has been playing well lately and, when healthy, are always pretty good. This one will probably come down to a battle between Beal and Derozan. Derozan is obviously quite the leaper, has a high release point on his jumper and has two or three inches on Beal. At the same time, he's an inattentive defender and Beal could make him pay if he's able to repeatedly get open for threes. At the end of the day, I believe that home court advantage will be enough of a difference maker that the Wizards get a W and move back up to .500.