The Toronto Raptors host the Washington Wizards in the first game of the NBA Playoffs 2015 on Saturday, and it promises to be an explosive start.
Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto.
When: Saturday April 18, 17:30 (UK time)
The Raptors were edged out in a thrilling first-round clash with the Brooklyn Nets last year, but they have continued to build on that momentum this season and return as the fourth seed in the East.
Led by back-court duo Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Dwane Casey’s men will be hopeful of at least going one step further this year as they will be backed by a raucous home crowd.
DeRozan leads the team with 20.1 points per game, while Lowry is averaging team-highs of 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game as they have combined well when healthy to give the Raptors a solid base from which to work.
Perhaps key to their chances will be the play of Jonas Valanciunas on both ends of the court, while the likes of Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson will need to step up and produce to give them an all-round threat.
However, standing in their way again in the first round is Paul Pierce, with the wily veteran moving on from the Nets to join Washington last summer.
The war of words has already begun between the two rivals, as Pierce insisted that Toronto don’t have “it” which makes him worried about meeting them in the playoffs again.
The former NBA champion came up clutch in last year’s series with a block to seal the Nets’ passage to the semi-finals with a dramatic Game 7 win, but with another year clocked up on his ageing legs, it remains to be seen how influential he can continue to be.
John Wall will undoubtedly be the biggest key to their success in the post-season, as the Wizards point guard is averaging 17.6 points and 10.0 assists per game this year.
Marcin Gortat, Nene and Bradley Beal will all have roles to play too, but ultimately this is down to Wall to pick up the team and lead them towards a deep run.
However, both teams enter the post-season off the back of a disappointing second-half of the regular season, as they had initially started the campaign as favourites to top the Eastern Conference.
Instead, a prolonged dip in form left them fighting for spots in the middle of the eight-team pack, and it came down to the last night of the regular season to decide where they would end up and who they would face.
Toronto (49-33) finished only marginally better off than their rivals (46-36), and it is worth noting that both teams fared better at home during the year with the Raps going 27-14.
As a result, with the Raptors starting off at the Air Canada Centre in front of a noisy and expectant home crowd, back the hosts to take the series lead on Saturday but much like the rest of this match-up, it won’t be easy and it could go down to the wire to split them.
Prediction: Raptors to win.