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NBA: Eastern Conference playoff preview
3:54 | NBA
NBA: Eastern Conference playoff preview
Thursday April 16th, 2015

Matchup: (4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Season Series: 3-0 Toronto,
Efficiency rankings: Toronto (Off Rating: 3, Def Rating: 23, Net Rating: 10),
Washington (Off Rating: 19, Def Rating: 5, Net Rating: 12)

The Matchup

The barren wasteland that is the NBA’s Eastern Conference doesn’t lend itself to many exciting playoff matchups. Fortunately, what Toronto and Washington lack in flair they should make up for in a series between two evenly contested teams, albeit with differing styles. Both Toronto and Washington shot out of the gates of the regular season with hot starts, and both cooled down for various reasons. The Wizards dealt with injuries, while the Raptors couldn’t sustain a high level of play on defense. The excitement of this series will come from Toronto’s third-ranked offense operating against Washington’s fifth-ranked defense. Add in some wily vets like Paul Pierce and gunners like Lou Williams, this series has the potential to go seven games where anyone can be a hero.

MORE NBA: SI.com's playoff coverage | Playoff schedule | Final grades

The Case For The Raptors

Toronto’s most obvious advantage is on offense. The Raptors weren’t heralded for their great play this season, in large part because of their 25-26 record after a 24-7 start, but they finished with the highest offensive rating in the conference, edging out Cleveland and Atlanta. The head of the attack is dynamo point guard Kyle Lowry, athletic enough to get anywhere on the court and bruising enough to finish strong at the rim. Lowry’s play went a little more unnoticed this season as the Raptors’ expectations increased, but he was a deserving Eastern Conference All-Star starter.

The Raptors also have a legitimate low-post option in Jonas Valanciunas. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan still struggles with efficiency, but is a shot creator who will command attention from the Wizards’ defense. Off the bench, Patrick Patterson and Grevis Vasquez offer shooting at their positions. And of course, sixth-man Williams is arguably the best at his job in the league ... just come in off the bench and shoot.

Home court can also play a role in a close series.  Toronto lost to Brooklyn in a Game 7 at home last season, but with the Raptors’ rabid fans, the Air Canada Centre will be far from a comfortable spot for the Wizards.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press/AP

The Case For The Wizards

Washington’s precipitous midseason decline (29-13 start, 17-23 finish) can at least be partially attributed to injuries. Shooting guard Bradley Beal missed 19 games, while power forward Nene missed 15 of his own. Even with the missed time from two key starters, the Wizards' defensive rating was good for second in the conference, behind only the Bucks. They’ll have to rely on that defense to slow down the Raptors' attack.

[daily_cut.NBA]Marcin Gortat gives the Wizards rim protection and an able post-defender against Valanciunas. Wall will have his hands full with the physical Lowry, but Wall is certainly athletic enough to keep up with his counterpart.

While the defense in Washington is reliable, the offense is much less so. Coach Randy Wittman has come under much criticism for his unimaginative sets, but having a full complement of starters becoming healthy at the same time could help offset Wittman’s deficiencies. If Wall is consistently hitting his midrange jumper for one game, or Beal catches fire from deep in another, those two could swing a game or two by themselves. If Pierce can play more minutes in the playoffs, he also adds spacing and the slightest bit of off-the-bounce creativity to Washington’s offense.

MORE NBA: Wall's off-the-court crossover | Cavs face pesky Celtics

The X-Factor

Washington’s backup guards. The Wizards have a more than capable starting five, but once their bench gets involved, the situation becomes dicey, particularly in the backcourt. Washington experimented with Andre Miller as its backup point guard this season, but then dealt him away. Now, the team is bringing Ramon Sessions and Garrett Temple off the bench to spell Wall and Beal. Sessions and Temple won’t get huge minutes, but they’ll face tough matchups in Vasquez and Williams. If Washington gets torched in the battle of backup guards every time they share the court, it could certainly swing games to Toronto’s favor. We’ve seen this before—notably in the Heat-Pacers series of yore—when a bench is bad enough to blow leads or let games slip away in critical moments. Sessions and Temple have to offer at least some resistance.

Telling Stat

17.7 net rating. The net rating of Toronto’s second-most used lineup. The Raptors bench lineup of Williams, Vasquez, Patterson, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough throttled opponents offensively, and somehow cobbled together enough defense to post a very high net rating. It’s not the largest sample size, 229 minutes in 39 games, but it shows the potential firepower of Toronto’s depth. Of course, benches won’t be as important in the playoffs. But in a game in which the Wizards find themselves in foul trouble, or Pierce is fatigued, or Beal gets hurt, they may not have the depth to respond. If this lineup goes on one or two big runs a game when Washington’s bench is in the game, it could certainly swing the series.

MORE NBA: Playoff primer | Hawks, Blazers slumping | Year-end awards

The Pick

Raptors in seven. These teams are somewhat of a disappointment for not reaching 50 wins in a terrible East, and the loser of this series could face some serious consequences. The games will be close, and the stars will play well. Ultimately, Toronto has home court, and too much firepower for Washington to match.

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