Two burgeoning teams will battle on Tuesday night, when the Toronto Raptors host the Washington Wizards at the Air Canada Centre. While many expected the Raptors and Wizards to have strong seasons, both clubs have exceeded expectations. With the All-Star Break looming, early season favorites like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are looking up at the Raptors and Wizards in the Eastern Conference standings.
Nearly two-thirds of the NBA season is complete, and the Raptors (35-17) are in second place in the conference, while the Wizards (33-20) are in third. Both clubs trail the Atlanta Hawks (43-10), another team that has thoroughly over-achieved. Though the Hawks have stunned the basketball world with their exceptional play, the Raptors and Wizards weren’t expected to build so strongly off solid runs last season.
In 2013-2014, the Raptors finished the regular season third in the East, while the Wizards finished in fifth. Washington lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers, while Toronto was bounced in the first round by the Brooklyn Nets. To some pundits, it’s been surprising to see Toronto and Washington maintain top-level play.
Coach Dwane Casey continues to keep the Raptors winning with an exciting offense, scoring 105.8 points per game, fourth-best in the league. The Wizards average just 99.8 points per game, 18th in the league, but Randy Wittman’s squad has limited opponents to 97.4 points per game.
Both teams rely on explosive backcourts. Point guard Kyle Lowry (18.8 points/7.2 assists) and swingman DeMar DeRozan (18.4 points/4.3 rebounds) have given opposing defenses fits. The Wizards use the steady tandem of point guard John Wall (17.3 points/10.2 assists) and shooting guard Bradley Beal (15 points/3.8 rebounds). Beal has been limited by injuries, but has been a key offensive weapon when healthy. Beal provided an example of his importance to the team with 33-point scoring outburst in a 104-103 win over the Houston Rockets on Dec. 29.
Wall and Lowry, the starting Eastern Conference guards in the All-Star Game, have each seemingly taken a leap into the upper echelon of NBA point guards. Wall has emerged into a deft distributor, leading the league in assists (10.2), while also having his best shooting season from the field (46 percent). Lowry has seen his numbers improve due to increased playing time. After averaging 29.7 minutes per game in 2012-2013, the 28-year-old has been given more playing time and has responded with a sharp scoring increase in the past two seasons.
To go along with elite starting guards, the two squads have effective role players. Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas averages 12.2 points per game and 8.6 rebounds, though his defense leaves something to be desired. Despite some poor recent performances, reserve guard Lou Williams has provided the offense with a major boost, averaging 14.9 points per game. The Raptors have also done a very good job protecting the ball, with just 12.2 turnovers a game.
Washington received a boost by adding a much-needed veteran presence with the signing of Paul Pierce. The 37-year-old can still score, averaging 12.4 points per game. Center Marcin Gortat remains an under-rated big man, posting solid statistics (11.6 points/8.1 rebounds).
The sportsbooks still aren’t exceptionally high on either team, with the playoffs less than two months away. The Raptors are 25/1 (No. 11) favorites to win the NBA Championship and the Wizards are 33/1 (No. 13), according to bovada.lv. Toronto has 8/1 odds (No. 4) to win the Eastern Conference while the Wizards are at 14/1 (No. 5).
The two teams have moved in different directions, lately. The Wizards have experience a slide in the past 10 games, winning just four games in a difficult stretch against over .500 teams that include the Raptors, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 8-2 over their last ten games.
The last matchup between the Raptors and Wizards was a 120-116 overtime thriller in Washington on Jan. 31. Toronto blew an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead only to win the game in overtime, led by Lowry scoring seven points in the extra period. Wall dropped 28 points and dished 12 assists, but it wasn’t enough to top Toronto.