As the result of a horrible DVR tragedy, I was denied the ability to see this game in it’s entirety. That mean’s an early call to the bullpen, where Zarar Siddiqi and William Lou were gracious enough to come in and pitch a couple innings of relief. This is post-game report by committee, with each of us focusing in on one thing that we took away from last night.
Learning about last night’s 2-point win over the Celtics didn’t exactly buoy me with confidence at first glance. You’d like to see a team gearing up for an extended playoff run taking it to the lottery teams (like Miami’s evisceration of Detroit last night) down the stretch, rather than squeezing out a last second win at home. But try not to jump to conclusions, as I first did, because the final score doesn’t tell the story that’s worth pulling from this game.
The Celtic’s are not a great team. But these Celtics might be amongst the best teams in the league to have lost 49 games that they’ve managed to make interesting late. Nobody will ever remember that about the 2013-2014 Celtics, but it’s been strangely true. Very well crafted tanking. The point in bringing this up is to note that while the Raptor’s have had a bad habit of coasting against non-playoff teams and losing or almost losing games in the process, this is not an example. The Celtic’s got inexplicably hot shooting when they needed it, and they’ve also got a Rondo-Bradley-Green trio who can play shut-down defense on almost anyone for stretches of time. So resist the temptation to assume that this game was close because of a bad character effort from the Raptors. It was very much the opposite. In grinding out a win that felt like it mattered just as much for the players on the floor as it did for the 19,000 people celebrating on the TV footage that refused to properly save on my DVR, the Raptor’s demonstrated exactly the kind of chutzpah they’ll need in late April (when I strongly recommend that all of you do whatever you have to do to watch playoff games in real-time. Technology cannot be trusted.).
There’s something particularly encouraging about what the way the Raptors eked out this win says about their season. This game came down to 4th quarter execution, heads-up hustle plays, improved team defense and the Raptor’s ability to create points off of turnovers. Those are four of the most important things a team needs to do to make a run in the playoffs. In clinching their first playoff berth in six years last night, the Raptor’s executed on all four fronts.
The Raptors showed that this is no accident born out of Eastern Conference mediocrity. The last time Toronto made the playoffs back in 2008 it was in an “It’s an honour just to be nominated” but we know we’re not going to win kind of way. But this team is poised for something different. To borrow a soon to be incredibly tired phrase from every talking head on TV/radio talking about the playoffs, this is a team that nobody is going to want to play. Which means that we should all be excited to watch.
When, with the game tied, DeMar DeRozan’s layup in transition was sent into the first row by Jeff Green, I lamented the missed opportunity and wondered aloud just why DeRozan never finishes stronger when it counts. Moments later, he used those oft-maligned handles to fake Green inside and pull back out for a soft fade which put the Raptors up two. That sequence was a microcosm of DeRozan’s season in that he was more effective than spectacular. In the post-game interview, the relief and sense of accomplishment was evident. This was a playoff berth that was achieved organically, not through some marquee free-agent signing, nor on the backs of a “superstar”, but though a team coming together when nobody had expected them to, perhaps not even the GM.
The game also featured another moment, maybe one of learning and recognition for Dwane Casey. Casey, who isn’t prone to use offense/defense-specific subs late in games, chose to leave in Greivis Vasquez with the Raptors protecting a two-point lead with seconds left. Rondo, quite easily, took it right at him and scored. After Amir Johnson’s athletic put-back off a Kyle Lowry miss gave the Raptors a two-point lead, Casey didn’t repeat the mistake and put in John Salmons instead of Vasquez. The Celtics ended up shooting a tough, running, three-pointer that didn’t have a chance.
Allowing the Celtics back into the game when they were on the ropes at the end of the third wasn’t so much a lapse in concentration as it was Jerryd Bayless having one of those spells where he starts hitting anything and everything. As he was drilling one-on-one threes I had flashbacks to that game in Detroit when the Raptors came back from 35 down, mostly due to Bayless. If you’re interested, Bayless happens to be on his fifth team in six seasons (including two stints in Memphis) and is a free-agent this summer; it honestly feels that the Raptors face him 23 times a season somehow. On a pizza-perfect night at the ACC it’s hard to dwell on a furious but ultimately futile Celtics comeback, except that the Raptors do have some cleaning up to do before the post-season, regardless of who and where they play.
The biggest knock on Jonas Valanciunas’ performance after last season was his defensive short-comings.
That criticism was entirely fair — his defense was sub-par. He often looked lost in rotation, he was foul-happy, and the referees rarely extended to the bumbling big the benefit of the doubt. Also, he was only 20 years old, and his name isn’t Anthony Davis, which meant that his struggles were to be expected.
Flip the calendar to his sophomore season. Valanciunas is still under the spotlight, and we’re still nit-picking every move he makes. We change our minds, and recalibrate our hopes with each step on his journey. We invested heavily in Jonas’ stock, and we’re constantly clutching the phone, sweaty palms in hand, ready at a moment’s notice to dump, or to hold. We can’t help it — it’s our curse as fans.
But Jonas’ development isn’t for us. It’s for himself, and it’s for the Raptors. It’s not going to be linear. Rather, it will come out in spurts. Sometimes, the difference between his mid-season struggles, and his present-day success, is really as simple as simplifying the game, as Bill Bayno has done with his cheat sheet (h/t Josh Lewenberg of TSN.ca). It’s a thin line between failure and success.
Outwork, outrun, sprint
[Set] great, legal screens
Step to [your] man
And at times, we’re rewarded with a glimpse into the future; some sustenance for our surety. For example, today was the first time I’ve been left in awe of Jonas’ defensive ability. Roll the clip:
Why did this play stick out to me? Because Jonas did everything perfectly. First, he does a good job hedging Bayless on the pick-and-roll. He cuts off the sideline, and Bayless is forced to move away from Sullinger, and towards the middle. Notice how high up Jonas is on this trap:
After Bayless gets towards the middle, he manages to throw the ball over-top of Ross into Sullinger’s hands. However, despite hedging so hard on the initial action, Jonas is able to recover in time, and positions himself perfectly. He leaves enough space to guard Sullinger on a potential move towards the middle, while also making himself available on a closeout.
Turns out, Sullinger decided to drive, rather than spot-up. Jonas does a good job there by funneling him towards the middle, where help defense is available in the form of Amir Johnson. However, Jonas is able to parlay his quickness and length into an effective contest on Sullinger without Amir’s help. This is key because Amir is free to box out Olynyk on the weak side. Without fouling, Jonas stays with Sullinger on every step of his drive, and forces him into an extremely tough shot over a taller defender.
Finally, to top it all off, Jonas collects the defensive rebound, protects it at first, then hits up Lowry for the pass. Kyle is then able to take it the length of the court in transition for a layup. That right there is a perfect defensive possession from a 21 year old center. How about them apples, eh?