What a difference six weeks make.
When the Raptors were last in Washington - a 96-88 win Feb. 19, the first game after the All-Star break - they collected their fifth straight victory, seemingly reviving the team's playoff aspirations.
Six days later they were defeated by that very same Wizards team, 90-84 at home, which spawned a devastating five-game losing streak that all but sealed their fate and put their season on life support.
On Sunday, that first victory was nothing more than a distant memory, as the Raptors (27-46) continued their downward spiral into the month of April with a disappointing 109-92 loss to the Wizards (27-46) at the Verizon Center.
Toronto fell behind early and could never quite find its footing on either end of the floor, shooting just 40 per cent and allowing Washington to score at a 48 per cent clip from the field.
The Wizards continued to do their best Jekyll and Hyde impression, playing with a different personality at home where they have won seven straight games, most since the 2006-07 season. Rookie Bradley Beal, who was expected to miss this game with a sprained ankle, led Washington with 24 points off the bench. Emeka Okafor added 19 points and 10 rebounds while John Wall, who was just 1-for-12 in the Feb. 19 meeting, scored 18 to go along with 10 assists.
Jonas Valanciunas was one of five Raptors to score in double figures with a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry added 15 apiece as Rudy Gay, hampered by foul trouble, was held to 11.
Fast Breaking Points
- Defensive Nightmare
For the Raptors, this was a disaster on defence nearly from the start. Wall, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his young career, started creating havoc for Toronto out of the gate. His ability to break down the defence and get into the lane had the Raptors scrambling, which led to 16 first-quarter free-throw attempts for Washington and early foul trouble for Gay and Amir Johnson.
It didn't stop there. In the second quarter Washington's second unit took over and got to the rim at will, outscoring the Raptors 24-8 in the paint during the period. Just as Toronto appeared to be turning the corner in the third quarter, Beal and the Wizards three-point shooting put the game out of reach.
Beal, who has all the makings of a young Raptor killer, hit four of his six triples in the third frame. The Wizards' guard and third-overall pick in last year's draft has done a number to the Raptors in his rookie season, scoring 69 points on 54 per cent shooting (61 per cent from long range) in three games against them. Even on the sore ankle, Beal routinely beat Toronto's perimeter defenders coming off screens on Sunday and continues to show great promise as a scorer in Washington's terrifying young backcourt.
The Stat: Led by Beal, the Wizards' reserves scored 62 points, the most any opponent's bench has totalled against Toronto this season.
- DeRozan Trending Downwards in March
Although DeRozan has taken a step in the right direction, inconsistency continues to plague him in this, his fourth NBA season. He began the campaign showing improved confidence in the post and on the glass while growing as a distributer throughout the year. Overall, his regular season numbers don't reflect much individual improvement thanks in large part to a poor month of January followed by an equally disappointing stretch here in March.
The Raptors' guard averaged 16.1 points in March, down from the 19.8 he put up during an impressive February run, coinciding with the arrival of Gay. Particularly concerning has been the drop off in free-throw attempts. After getting to the line seven and a half times per game last month (shooting 89 per cent from the stripe), he shot just five freebies a night in March (down to 79 per cent).
On Sunday, DeRozan became a victim of his own poor shot selection, something that has been an issue for him in the past. Many of his shots - especially early in the game and during the third quarter - came in the form of off-balance, contested, mid-range jumpers, many of them taken early in the shot clock. He was just 2-for-11 outside of the paint and attempted just four free throws on the night.
The Stat: DeRozan exceeded 20 points twice in March after scoring 20 or more in seven games during the month of February.
- Rookie Crossroads
The increased opportunity that has been given to Toronto's rookies with the season winding down has magnified the gap between them at this stage of their young careers.
Valanciunas played a team-high 36 minutes on Sunday, the sixth game in a row he's exceeded 30 minutes. He has now scored in double figures in 11 of 12 games, recording six or more rebounds in each of the last 11. The 20-year-old is taking advantage of his time on the floor while showing great promise as a low-post scorer, where he has been featured more with each passing game.
His confidence, awareness and poise in the post and on the floor in general continue to be a bright spot as the team continues to lose games. He even knocked down a couple mid-range shots - one from 16 feet, the other from 22 - on Sunday, something he could and should be doing more of as defenders adjust to his refined work in the paint.
Despite flashes of promise, Terrence Ross has yet to experience the same end-of-season renaissance. Ross was held scoreless in 12 minutes against the Wizards and was pulled in the first half after a series of quick shots and missed assignments forced Dwane Casey's hand.
It's clear that the very attributes that are allowing Valanciunas to flourish - confidence, awareness, poise - are the things that hold Ross back more often than not. It's been noted that this coming offseason will be a crucial one for Ross. Until he gets stronger physically and mentally, inconsistency and a short leash from the coaching staff will continue to be the norm.
The Detroit Pistons (24-50) visit the Air Canada Centre Monday as Jose Calderon makes his return to Toronto in a rematch of Friday's 99-82 win for the Raptors.