If there is any player in the league that you can expect to light the fuel to the fire prior to the first round of the NBA playoffs, it’s Paul Pierce. After comments about having to motivate each and every member of the aging Nets roster a season ago, Pierce let remarks fly about John Wall and Bradley Beal’s work ethic in comparison to Rajon Rondo in his final seasons with Boston. Call it motivation, call it cynicism – Paul Pierce stays true to his methods. The Wizards enter the first round matchup with the Raptors, about whom Pierce proceeded to say, “they don’t have that ‘it’ factor to scare us in the playoffs.”
The Raptors won all 3 matchups against the Wizards in 2015 and will carry home court advantage back to Toronto where this series is too closely matched to not go seven games. Both teams started hot: the Wizards were 13 games over .500 and the Raptors started 16 games over .500 through December. Washington had a tough February, going 3-9 – while Toronto had a three week stretch in late February/early March in which they lost 9 out of 10 games. I would have to call Pierce out by saying that both teams lack the mid-season sharpness and grit to make any run in the playoffs. But matchups are everything when it comes to the playoffs – where most likely the winner of this long series will meet an underwhelming Atlanta Hawks team that does not have much playoff experience.
Keys to the Series
Division doesn’t mean much in the NBA, but finishing 14 games back of East-leading Atlanta is tough mentally for a team with a great start to the season. Yet, Washington has two of the most highly-touted youth in the league. The third year of the Wall-Beal era has seen its ups and downs. The Wizards have struggled scoring the basketball this season statistically, finishing just above 98 ppg and 17th overall in the NBA. Beal is known for this 3-point efficiency in which he shot 41% from behind the arc this year. He will have to get it going from downtown if the Wizards want to keep up with the high-scoring Raptors. Wall has dialed down the scoring slightly from last season, with a game high 34 points on March 25. Wall had multiple 50 point games during the 2014 season, but now has more weapons this season with the addition of Pierce. Wall’s assist numbers have skyrocketed this season, committing to more of a true point-guard role. He has recorded eight 10+ assist games in wins since the beginning of March, leading the Wizards to 6th-best in APG with 24 per game. Offense is key to this series by spreading the ball and being efficient per possession.
Year one of Toronto’s playoff revival since the Vince Carter-era was exciting, providing an atmosphere rarely seen in the first round of the playoffs. Home-court advantage will likely simmer a bit in Year two, as Toronto fans were preparing for a run for the top seed in the East after their blazing start. Things have cooled off, but not on the offensive end. The Raptors finished the season 4th in the NBA in PPG, scoring 104.0 per game – including a flurry of big games by DeMar DeRozan. He scored 42 in a win over Houston on March 30, 38 in a win over Boston on April 4, and 29 in a win at Orlando on April 10. With Kyle Lowry coming off the bench and Terrence Ross playing a smaller role, this team has a different strategy for this first round matchup. If Jonas Valanciunas can out-rebound Marcin Gortat and Nene, the Raptors will most likely out-score the Wizards.
Gortat had an immediate impact on this Wizards team since his arrival from Phoenix in 2013. In a limited role in Orlando’s run in the playoffs in 2009, he was a dominating presence inside with 15 blocks. Last year, Gortat started all 11 games for the Wizards in the playoffs, including a surprising one-sided series against the Bulls. His 13.0 ppg were key to that series win, but averaged almost 2 turnovers per game – which is high for a big man. His regular season numbers are very consistent with last season and he will have to continue to work the ball inside-out for Beal, Wall and Pierce to get good shots. An important matchup will be with Valanciunas, who is averaging 8.7 rebounds per game. Gortat’s 9.9 RPG a year ago in the playoffs will be good enough to get the Wizards to a seventh game in this series.
Toronto in 7
Depth is so important in such an evenly matched series. This is also the year of making sure NBA players get less than 35 minutes per game. The Wizards starting five has logged serious minutes this season, and their main role players include Kris Humphries, Rasual Butler, and Otto Porter Jr. The Raptors have to have the edge with Kyle Lowry potentially coming off the bench and Terrence Ross having a more limited role. Throwing Tyler Hansbrough into the lineup to rough the Wizards up inside will have an impact when this series reaches the sixth and seventh game. Lastly, the Toronto fan-base will likely swarm its streets as it did last season to create the ‘it’ factor that Pierce likely forgot since he closed the door on the Raptors with a last-second block to seal a Nets victory.