- - Monday, April 16, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

According to a popular theory entering the NBA playoffs, Wizards-Raptors isn’t your typical No. 1 vs. No. 8 series.

Toronto struggled against Washington in the regular season, splitting four games in which the Wizards’ best player, John Wall, played none. The Raptors also carried bad memories of the teams’ last playoff encounter, a sweep three seasons ago.

That series, which began in Toronto, was part of the Raptors’ 10-game losing streak in playoff openers. Six of those series started at home. Embarking on the 2018 postseason with the Wizards in town, the Raptors faced visions of the past, the weight of being No. 1, and the necessity to treat the opener – in All-Star guard Kyle Lowry’s words – “like a Game 7.”

Conversely, Washington treated Saturday’s contest like the eighth game … of the regular season. Like some nondescript matchup against the Orlando Magic or Sacramento Kings in November, when teams are still feeling themselves out.

The Raptors’ 114-106 victory was about as close as the score suggested. Washington’s three-point lead early in the final quarter was erased by an 18-6 run after forward Mike Scott’s flagrant foul on Lowry. The spurt included four 3-pointers, a pair each from role players C.J. Miles and Delon Wright.

The nearest defender on some of those shots and others (the Raptors hit 16 of 30 from long distance) appeared to be stuck in Customs at the border.

And what did we get as explanations from the Wizards? The same-old stuff.

“A lot of those plays were crazy mistakes we could’ve easily fixed by just running back in transition, matching up correctly, talking — all the basics of defense,” guard Bradley Beal told reporters Sunday after practice. “We just get back to those and we’ll be OK.”

Good idea. Except basics shouldn’t be part of the discussion 83 games into the season.

“We had a lot of mental mistakes that you can’t make, especially late in the game,” forward Otto Porter said. “We have to pay more attention to detail and know where their shooters are at all times.”

Great. Except details should be the center of players’ attention in the playoffs.

“I thought we did a lot of good things, but we gave some of their shooters open threes that we have to correct,” coach Scott Brooks said. “Some of our turnovers led to easy transition buckets and then we lost some of their shooters in transition.”

Guard John Wall pointed out that the Wizards didn’t play their best game, yet they still had a chance to win.

Wonderful. That’s been the story all year. They played below their level, yet still reached the postseason.

One more victory would’ve been nice, pitting Washington against the injury-wracked Boston Celtics instead of the Eastern Conference’s best and deepest team. Ten Raptors average at least 18 minutes. Toronto finished 16 games ahead of the Wizards, inarguably proving itself as the better and more consistent team.

Fortunately, Washington often delivered its best performances against better and more consistent opponents, and undoubtedly is counting on the same in the playoffs. The Wizards must play at their optimal level for a chance to beat superior opponents.

In that regard, this 1-vs.-8 matchup is no different than any other.

Since the NBA playoff field expanded to 1984, a No. 8 seed has prevailed only five times. That’s the bad news for Washington. The good news is the phenomena’s relative frequency of late; it has happened twice in the last seven seasons (Philadelphia over Chicago in 2012 and Memphis over San Antonio in 2011).

But advancing against the Raptors won’t be easy, no matter their history of playoff failures. “They’re a better team all-around (now),” Porter said. “They have depth. They’re good.

“They’re No. 1 for a reason.”

Indeed. Washington earned its seeding as well.

Chic picks to reach the Eastern Conference finals entering the season, the Wizards have become novel choices to reach the second round. Saturday’s setback was a lost opportunity, but all isn’t lost entering Tuesday’s contest. “We need to be a little bit better,” Brooks said. “We’re playing against the best team in the East.”

Their goal remains the same — win at least one game in Canada.

“What we wanted to do was come and steal Game 1,” Wall said. “They had the homecourt advantage and they definitely used that to the best of their ability in that game. Now all we have to focus on is trying to win Game 2. We have an opportunity to win Game 2 and go home.”

They need to rediscover the good version of themselves soon.

Otherwise, this matchup of top and bottom seeds is likely to play out like most do.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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