- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2018

John Wall, talking Eastern Conference playoff basketball, didn’t even have to mention LeBron James by name.

“You’ve got one person who nobody wants to play because of who he is,” the Wizards All-Star said. “He’s been to seven straight finals no matter what seed he’s in. … I don’t care who I play, I’ll play against him one day.”

The Wizards won’t face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, but they did land on their side of the bracket. For the first time in his career, Wall could meet James in the playoffs.

But getting past the first round is no sure thing — especially with the Wizards facing the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. The two teams meet Saturday for Game 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Washington limped into the playoffs, losing 14 of its last 21, and now matches up with a reinvented Raptors team that recorded a franchise-high 59 wins this season.

This could have been avoided if the Wizards took those November, December games just a little more seriously. Or they could have had the seventh seed — side-stepping the Raptors entirely — if they didn’t blow Wednesday’s season finale by losing to the Orlando Magic. Sure, Wall (rest) and forward Otto Porter (calf) were out, but Orlando is one of the league’s worst.

The Wizards, though, maintain they will be better for the playoffs because of their ability to perform at a higher level against the NBA’s elite.

If there’s a flip to switch, now is the Wizards’ chance to prove they can do it.

“Every team is open,” Wall said. “I’ve seen teams that have been dominant in the regular season and not great in the playoffs, so playoffs are a different atmosphere. You could be a team that won 4-0 in the regular season, and lose 4-o in the playoffs. … It’s going to be fun and exciting.”

Wall could be right, especially this year in the East.

The Cavaliers aren’t expected to steamroll through the conference like in the past, even with James still there.

After the Raptors revamped their style of play by shooting more 3s and upgrading their bench, can they do it in the playoffs? Cleveland seems more vulnerable than ever, giving up 109.9 points per game. Boston is decimated with injuries. Philadelphia is the hottest team in the NBA, winning 16 straight to close the season, but will their inexperience be a factor?

The Wizards, meanwhile, have been a mess for the last month or so. Despite Wall’s return from knee surgery, Washington has blown games they should have won, against good and bad alike. Losing to teams like the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks is even more perplexing.

“We have to play better, there’s no question,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We have to have a sense of urgency. We have to be more of a defensive-minded team. Our defensive numbers, they’re not coach-spin. They’re actual numbers. We’re not playing the defense we need to play the last 15-20 games.”

The Wizards finished the year with a defensive rating of allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 15th. But in March and April, their defensive rating was 111.3, which ranked 13th.

Toronto, meanwhile, can score the ball. Led by guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors had the second-best offense in the league with a 114.1 offensive rating.

And they’re a different team. Toronto changed their shot profile — taking nearly nine more 3-pointers per game this season than last. They finished third in 3-point attempts, compared to 22nd in 2016-17.

Prior to the season, the Wizards aimed for at least 50 wins and to finish among the East’s best. They hoped that continuity — with Wall, Porter and guard Bradley Beal all under contract — would help take them there.

They finished with 43 wins, landing in the eighth seed. That’s disappointing, even with Wall missing half the season.

“You’re happy you made (the playoffs), but at the same time, we could have set ourselves up a little bit better than what we did,” Beal said.

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