Wizards Series Preview: A Death Row DC Rebirth?

The Wizards are limping into the 2018 playoffs, but a quick start in Toronto could put the Eastern Conference on alert.

 “We’re the best backcourt in the league,” proclaimed Wizards’ all-star guard Bradley Beal this past summer, prior to D.C.’s uneven 2017-2018 regular season campaign (43-39). Beal continued to explain, “That’s just the confidence and the approach that we [Beal and John Wall] have. We know that there’s a handful of talented guards in the league, and we’re not taking anything away from them. But we feel like we’re the best backcourt, and you’ll never hear us say anything different.”

Beal has a chance to validate this offseason prognostication as he and Wall face off against another all-star backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

What version of the Wizards will show up? Will the Wizards’ series sweep in 2015 play a part in how the 2018 series unfolds? Will Beal and Wall show out like all-stars? Will Toronto’s bench overwhelm the Wizards’ thin depth? After hobbling to a 3-9 finish, the Wizards look to channel their unified Death Row D.C. (coined by Markieff Morris last season) playoff swagger and get back to winning basketball.

Season Matchup

Based on their four regular-season meetings, few observers would think this a typical 1-8 matchup. The Wizards and Raptors split four meetings this season:

November 5 in Toronto: Wizards 107, Raptors 96

November 19 in Toronto: Raptors 100, Wizards 91

February 1 in Washington: Wizards 122, Raptors 119

March 2 in Washington: Raptors 102, Wizards 95

The main storyline of the season series was the absence of Wall in each of the four games. Wall rested in November for knee issues and then was sidelined after knee surgery for the final two meetings. Wall’s initial injury meant backup point guard (at the time) Tim Frazier played 31 minutes in the first game and 36 minutes in the second contest. Current backup point guard Tomas Satoransky played only 22 and 12 minutes in the first two trips to Toronto, respectively. Rotations were still being sorted out and the Wizards were trying to figure out their way in a world without Wall.

Playing without Wall meant fellow all-star Beal was forced to elevate his game. And he did step up in the four games versus Toronto. Averaging nearly 28 points per game in the series, Beal looked like the aggressive playmaker the Wizards needed to fill Wall’s void. Not only was Beal scoring, but he was doing his part to get everyone on the court involved, distributing six assists in each of the final two meetings. The “Everybody Eats” culture was forming.

Toronto Raptors: A Scouting Report

Led by the DeRozan and Lowry backcourt, the Raptors surpassed Boston in the Eastern Conference standings in late December and never looked back. While DeRozan and Lowry certainly set the tone, Toronto’s depth enables them to wear down opponents and keep, or extend, leads while DeRozan and/or Lowry rest.

Head coach Dwane Casey runs a rotation that is ten deep, and he’ll most likely continue to use this depth, or something similar, to give his starters breathers while his bench unit wreaks havoc on the Wizards’ tired starters or overmatched role players. The Raptors’ bench strength is best seen when compared with the Wizards’ bench players (per 100 possessions):

Per 100 Poss Table
Player FG% 3P% 2P% FT% TRB AST STL BLK PTS ORtg DRtg
C.J. Miles .379 .361 .434 .835 5.6 2.0 1.4 0.8 25.8 109 108
Lucas Nogueira .613 .263 .721 .679 10.3 2.6 2.7 5.1 14.4 123 98
Jakob Poeltl .659 .500 .660 .594 12.7 1.8 1.3 3.2 18.3 122 104
Fred VanVleet .426 .414 .437 .832 6.0 7.9 2.2 0.6 21.3 115 106
Delon Wright .465 .366 .520 .829 6.8 6.9 2.5 1.1 19.1 116 105
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2018.
 
 
Per 100 Poss Table
Player FG% 3P% 2P% FT% TRB AST STL BLK PTS ORtg DRtg
Ian Mahinmi .556 .000 .561 .703 13.5 2.3 1.6 1.8 15.9 107 107
Kelly Oubre .403 .341 .456 .820 8.1 2.2 1.8 0.8 21.2 106 109
Tomas Satoransky .523 .465 .544 .781 7.0 8.6 1.5 0.5 15.8 124 111
Mike Scott .527 .405 .582 .658 8.7 2.8 0.8 0.4 23.6 109 111
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2018.

The Raptors’ depth, contributing more offensive and defensive value than the Wizards' subs, will certainly be something Casey will lean on, just like during the regular season. There will be no break for the Wizards, no weak piece to exploit.

Wizards’ head coach Scott Brooks must manage his inferior bench’s minutes and play appropriate matchups, even if this means playing his starters more minutes than he’d like. The Wizards failed to overcome Boston’s depth last season in the Eastern Conference semifinals, losing game seven to Kelly Olynyk (he put up an unstoppable 26 points in 28 minutes). D.C. faces a similar 10-deep situation this year.

Important Matchups

The battle between the all-star backcourts will set the tone for the series. The Wizards’ duo has a history of performing well in the playoffs, while the Raptors’ guards have historically struggled (relative to their regular season productivity). The Wizards’ guards have an edge in offensive and defensive efficiency (Wall and Beal and higher playoff PERs than both Lowry and DeRozan) and overall dependability:

Playoffs Per 100 Poss Table
Player FG% 3P% 2P% FT% PTS ORtg
DRtg
Bradley Beal .437 .341 .487 .817 28.7 110 106
John Wall .414 .282 .447 .815 28.1 106 106
Kyle Lowry .394 .314 .447 .785 24.0 103 109
DeMar DeRozan .403 .209 .421 .856 30.2 100 111
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2018.

The difference between previous years and this postseason, however, is the health of Wall. Wall dropped fifteen pounds during his time away from the court, possibly affecting his ability to absorb contact and play the relentlessly aggressive style he’d like to use during extended minutes in the playoffs. Beal played the fourth most minutes in the NBA this season (which was influenced by Wall’s absence), so even his own health and energy could be affected negatively. What version of the Wizards’ backcourt will show up? Tired and slow, or energetic and fast?

The Raptors’ athletic bigs versus the Wizards’ more traditional bigs will be another matchup to watch. Wizards’ center Marcin Gortat suffered from the absence of Wall, losing his pick-and-roll partner that led to a more dynamic offense. This decline, however, wasn’t evident in Gortat’s production against the Raptors during the regular season. Gortat averaged nearly 10 points and 10 rebounds, while his Raptors’ counterpart, Jonas Valanciunas, averaged nearly 10 points and only 5 rebounds in the season series.

Serge Ibaka, a matchup nightmare for many, also didn’t stand out against the Wizards and fellow power forward Markieff Morris. Ibaka averaged nearly 10 points and 6 rebounds during the season series, while Morris averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds. The bigs neutralized each other on both ends of the floor, with neither side pulling away and making a pronounced difference. Can an aging Gortat be trusted over seven games? Will Morris get emotional and jeopardize his time on the court? The playoffs bring out the best and worst in players. All eyes will be on the all-star guards, but the series may be won or lost up front.

Three Keys to Victory

The eighth-seeded Wizards will be working against history to win their opening round matchup (only five number 8 seeds have knocked off top seeds), but it’s been done, so D.C. is fully capable of knocking off the Raptors and moving on. The Wizards will win if:

1. Wall stays healthy and plays full playoff minutes (36-39 minutes) with the edge and aggression he has shown in previous playoff series (Wall has never lost a first-round playoff series).

2. Brooks commits to shortening his bench and relies heavily on his starters (only Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ian Mahinmi, and Mike Scott get limited minutes off the bench).

3. The Wizards win game one or two in Toronto.

Prediction

Wizards in 6. Rotations shorten and stars come out to play. The Raptors bench, prolific in the regular season, won’t carry the same advantage in the playoffs. Beal and Wall play with chips on their shoulders, the starters regain their Death Row D.C. swagger, the Wizards steal game one or two in Toronto, and D.C. moves on to face LeBron.

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