(SportsNetwork.com) - The two-time defending Atlantic Division-champion Toronto Raptors are back in the playoffs for the second time in the last seven years and hope this run has more life than ones in the past.
Standing in the way of the fourth-seeded Raptors are the No. 5 Washington Wizards. This best-of-seven series kicks off the NBA postseason Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
"The real season starts this weekend, what we've been building for," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
Toronto set the franchise-record for wins in a season with 49 (49-33) and lost in seven games to the Brooklyn Nets in last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Raptors haven't made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2000-01.
The Raptors ended the regular season with seven wins in the final 10 games, and put a lid on the schedule with Wednesday's 92-87 victory over the Charlotte Hornets. Kyle Lowry scored 26 points and the All-Star is feeling good after missing some time with an injury.
"This is what we play for," Lowry said. "Now it's the time where it gets a little bit more serious."
Wizards veteran forward Paul Pierce said the Raptors lack the "it" factor and will get a chance to see what's in store this series.
"Paul Pierce has always got to say something," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. "He said something last year, he's always got to say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he says."
Toronto is 1-6 in the opening game of a playoff series and the only time it won Game One was in the semifinals versus Philadelphia in 2001. The Raptors start a playoff series at home for the third time in franchise history.
Meanwhile, the Wizards have reached the postseason for a second straight year after missing the playoffs the previous five. They recorded 46 wins - the most since posting 54 in 1978-79 - and struggled down the stretch, losing two straight, three of four and eight of the last 14 contests.
The Wizards struggled with the Raptors this season, losing all three matchups, and are 1-7 in the past eight encounters. The Wizards and Raptors have never met in the postseason. DeRozan and reserve Lou Williams averaged 21.0 and 19.7 points, respectively, in three games against the Wizards this season.
Wizards guard John Wall posted an average of 19.0 ppg versus Toronto in 2014-15. Wall's teammate, guard Bradley Beal, talked about this upcoming series.
"We have to bring our "A" game," Beal said "We have to do whatever it takes to take care of the ball. Regardless if we're at home or away we have to win on the road. That's definitely our main goal is to go in there and get a win."
BACKCOURT: This Eastern Conference quarterfinals will be decided by the backcourt play of each team. Beal claimed before the season started that the Wizards have the best guard tandem in the league with All-Star Wall. But Lowry is an All-Star and DeRozan was a season ago. The Wizards and Raptors started hot this season, then both clubs waded through some rough times with scoring issues, injuries and poor defense. Defending any of these guards is a tough task. Wall can do it all and Beal plays as if he's a forward at times, driving the lane and creating opportunities.
"We all have to be ready to go, myself included," Beal said. "Everybody has to bring their game in the playoffs. Everybody's fighting for the same goal and the same dream, so we all have to come together individually and win our matchups and then as a team collectively beat them."
Lowry was nicked up toward the end of the regular season and is a tough defender. DeRozan missed a lot of time early on, and now both floor generals are anxious for the challenge. While Wall and Beal have Marcin Gortat and Nene to work with inside, Lowry and DeRozan must get the ball to big men Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross or the upstart Tyler Hansbrough. This backcourt matchup is a must-see event.
"I can't wait," Lowry said of matching up with Wall. "It's my All-Star backcourt mate. We're both starting All-Stars. I think his talent is unbelievable. He's one of the fastest guys in the league, most athletic point guards and he's only getting better. But, it's a challenge I'm looking forward to and I'm sure he's looking forward to it."
FRONTCOURT: Gortat is a scary presence in the paint. Whether he's working the pick-and-roll or sitting back in the box, Gortat is a steady force for the Wizards. He had eight games this season with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and was even better after the All-Star break, averaging 13.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. Nene is a nice compliment to Gortat inside, but won't be much of a factor in this series save a few points and rebounds. Pierce is the more experienced member of the Wizards and won an NBA title in 2008 with Boston. He's not afraid to speak his mind and already gave Toronto bulletin board material. Pierce is still confident in his 3-point shooting. The Wizards were ninth in 3-point percentage at 36.0.
"They present a lot of different challenges for us," Casey said. "Their speed and athleticism, the way they run the floor is huge. Rebounding is another area which the team should really be focused in. That's a challenge. In transition with Wall pushing the ball at you 100 miles an hour is another challenge. Getting back with Nene's post-ups is another."
Valanciunas will renew his battle with Gortat, but isn't used that often in crunch time because that's when Lowry and DeRozan take over. However, the giant Lithuanian nearly averages a double-double with a career-best 12.0 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds. He had 22 double-doubles this season. Terrence Ross posted 9.8 points and 2.8 boards in a career-high 82 games this season. Don't count on Ross to make any impact. It appears Hansbrough is the flavor of the month and is expected to start at the power forward spot. He can clog the middle, but that's about it. He is no match for Gortat down low.
BENCH: Williams is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and provides a spark off the bench for the guard-heavy Raptors. Williams has scored 13 or more points in a season-high 12 straight games, averaging 18.6 ppg in that span. He ranks first among all reserves in the NBA for total points (1,242), 3-pointers made (152), free throws made (340) 10-plus point games (64) and 25-plus point games (11). He averaged a career-high 15.5 ppg in 80 games as a reserve. Guard Greivis Vasquez and forward/center Patrick Patterson will also come off Toronto's bench, which was tied for fifth in scoring (38.6 ppg). Williams, Vasquez and Patterson are all dangerous from downtown.
The Wizards' bench is not as dynamic as Toronto's with Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden, Rasual Butler, Kevin Seraphin and Ramon Sessions at coach Randy Wittman's disposal. Humphries led the bench players with 8.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. Gooden and fellow reserve DeJuan Blair have playoff experience, but won't see much action to prove it.
COACHING: Wittman guided the Wizards back to the postseason for a second straight season and managed to keep the team's spirits up during some rough patches. The Wizards were the early favorite to win the East until Atlanta exploded, Cleveland got its act together and Chicago played its type of basketball. Wittman should feel more comfortable now that Wall and Beal have playoff experience.
"That was their first experience and it should help them a lot in these playoffs," Wittman said of the duo learning from last year. "Also having Paul (Pierce) this time will be a plus for everyone."
The Raptors have increased their win total each season Casey took over as coach in 2011-12. He, too, has several players with playoff experience. Hansbrough has participated in a team-high 38 postseason contests, averaging 5.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 15.7 minutes.
"They've been there," Casey said. "They won't be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed when the crowd comes out and the intensity level goes up 10 decibels."
Williams leads the team with 391 points and 91 assists in 37 career playoff games. Casey said his team is not satisfied with what it has accomplished so far and the real season starts this weekend.
"We've seen it happen over the years and have been a part of different organizations that have won and we are getting to that level," Casey said. "We are not there yet, but we are getting there and this year is another step."
PREDICTION: This a tough series to predict because of the guard play.
"We know everything is going to go through us," Lowry said of himself and DeRozan. "We're going to (be) the focal point in every single game, every single minute of play is going to go through us."
The case is the same for Wall and Beal. Toronto may have won all three games in the regular season, but this is the time of year when players get stiff and can't handle the playoff pressure. Washington opens this series on the road and will be loose and ready.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: WIZARDS IN SIX