“The only way you’re going to get [experience] is to go through it. I have faith in our guys and confidence in our guys that we’re going to go in there as a group bonded together and fight together.” Casey is right, as the Raptors have been solid on the road this year. Their 22-19 mark away from the Air Canada Centre tied Miami and Washington for the best road record in the Eastern Conference. They won a game in Oklahoma City, likely the loudest building in the league. As we just saw in Toronto, though, there is loud and then there is playoff loud. The Barclays Center is not known as one of the most intimidating buildings in the league, but Masai Ujiri’s “[Expletive] Brooklyn” before Game 1 has put some extra juice into this series. Kevin Garnett reference the comment after Tuesday’ game, likely in an attempt to rile up his team’s fans. “We’re going to be fine,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “I’ll tell you that right now. We’re going to be fine.
Meanwhile, the Raptors said they understood the Brooklyn crowd will be in high gear Friday night But at least one Raptor writer, Cathal Kelly dismissed the crowd, calling them, “a visiting collection of Park Slope arrivistes and yuppies that last heard ‘The Blueprint’ at a wine bar,”. That conveniently dismisses those fans who live well beyond the hipster districts in the borough’s vast expanse … and form the biggest, loudest contingent of fans at Barclays. He’ll learn.
Coaches aren’t the ones who are asked to make shots or make stops, but coaching at this time of the basketball calendar takes on another layer, a level of responsibility that carries as much pressure as the outcome of a late-game heave. Jason Kidd, in his debut as a post-season head coach, did a masterful job working the officials in Game 1 on an afternoon when the Nets weren’t called for any defensive fouls in the fateful fourth quarter. When momentum was poised to go in Toronto’s favour, Kidd called some timely timeouts. Playoff basketball is as much about in-game adjustments and in-between adjustments as it is about protecting the boards, limiting second-chance opportunities and burying free throws in crunch time.
On consecutive game-deciding offensive possessions late in the fourth quarter, DeRozan made two shots — one over Paul Pierce, another a fadeaway over Joe Johnson — to give the Raptors leads of 87-85 and 89-85. It’s what All-Stars do, and in the playoffs, it’s how reputations are shaped. “Kid is getting better each year,” Nets center Kevin Garnett said. “He made some tough shots over a hand.”
“He’s grown, he’s still not a finished product. We’re just seeing the beginning of a guy becoming a star.” Mid-range shots are vanishing from the NBA among the smart teams, because they’re lousy percentage plays. Corner and sideline threes, like the one Pierce took? Those are the best bets outside of five feet. DeRozan has worked nights and weekends, taking the harder, lower-percentage road. It’s a little like learning to putt on one foot, leaning backwards, one-handed. “In the summertime, before games, I always practice unconventional shots,” said DeRozan, who finished with 30 in Game 2. “Fadeaways, leaning, pump-fakes — that’s my serious shot. When I shoot I don’t just shoot jump shots. I always shoot different styles. Just (for) the rhythm. “You never know the type of shot you’re going to need to shoot at a certain time. So when I’m in a certain position, any shot I feel like I’m going to take, I’m going to feel comfortable with.
But, really, only two players — one from each side — have been consistently good and solidly impactful for their respective teams: Nets veteran Joe Johnson and Raptors second-year centre Jonas Valanciunas. Johnson is not a surprise. He’s been doing this forever. But Valanciunas is a revelation. He’s looking as composed as he has in his two years in the NBA. It’s not supposed to be this way. Valanciunas is supposed to be learning what playoff basketball is all about. He’s expected to struggle the way fellow second-year starter Terrence Ross has. That’s the norm. Putting a subtle twist on a phrase Raptors head coach Dwane Casey likes to use, Valanciunas is “doing one of the hardest things in basketball.” He’s learning and producing at the same time. Casey prefers the developing and winning wordage, but that applies to a full team. As for the rest of the players in this series, it’s been hit and miss … or, in some cases, miss altogether.
TURNOVERS: Toronto has 40 in just two games – at home! To be tied 1-1 in the series after that you’ve got to feel really fortunate. You do that on the road and this series will be over quick. Nets defence in the half court has been sensational. Multiple help and amazing communication and coverages. Raptors must realize that the Nets are incredibly help-conscious and play on that and look to create their help and then get rid of the ball quick to the next guy and keep them on the run and prevent them ‘loading up’ on the guy with the ball. Must be a whole lot tougher with the ball and play through contact. Not going to get the whistle-deal with it and be that much better. It can be done. Move the ball side-top-side and make the defence cover. Better spacing, screening, ball and player movement and inside-out play are imperative.
What do you think of DeMar DeRozan’s face after he hits a big shot, he was asked moments earlier. “I love it, he goes like this,” he exclaimed without hesitation, busting out his interpretation of what has been dubbed “the DeRozan face”. To his credit, it was dead on. DeRozan’s signature celebration has become a welcomed sight for Vasquez and the rest of the Raptors’ players. “It’s something I can only do in a game after shots or a dunk or something,” DeRozan said. “It’s just me being intense.” After draining an 18-foot fadeaway jumper, his second straight bucket, with just over two minutes left in Tuesday’s 100-95 Game 2 win over the Nets, the Raptors’ all-star guard strutted up the court doing the DeRozan face. “I told him before the game,” Vasquez noted. “I said, ‘You’re going to have a great game, I want that face’. I get fired up when he starts doing that and he makes that face.”
Perhaps the biggest helper for Vasquez so far came late in the fourth on a play in which he was both good and lucky. Vasquez, in-bounding the ball at a crucial point of the pivotal contest, lofted a pass just above the head of a gambling Brooklyn defender, right into the waiting mitts of Amir Johnson, who couldn’t believe his good fortune. After catching the pass, Johnson was able to cruise in for a running two-handed slam dunk that stretched Toronto’s lead to four. “We work on that play every day in practice, late game (situations),” Vasquez said. “We executed very well and we got it done. I got an assist, too, that’s important,” he added with a smile. Equally importantly for head coach Dwane Casey, Vasquez was markedly better defensively in Game 2 after being throttled throughout Game 1. Vasquez has come to play, helping to make up for the continued invisibility of Terrence Ross. And he’s ready to do even more.
“We’ve talked about it all season,” Deron Williams said after the game of the team’s rebounding, according to Brooklyn Nets beat reporter Lenn Robbins. “It’s been a plague for us.” Brooklyn has only one real option if they want to close that disparity: lift Kevin Garnett’s minutes restriction. Garnett’s played a strict 20 minutes in each of the first two games, and when he’s on the court, Brooklyn’s been the beneficiary. With Garnett off the court, the Raptors have outscored the Nets 114-99 and out-rebounded them 60-39. In his 39 minutes on the court, they’ve outscored the Raptors 87-73, and though the Raptors still have a rebounding edge, it’s not as pronounced — just 37-28.
It’s been tough to keep track of who says what in the back-and-forth game of trash talking, which really has been more one-sided than anything. I mean, the Raptors GM said “F— Brooklyn!” and the newspapers called the Nets “dinosaurs,” and then Paul Pierce calls the Nets “soft.” All shots seem to be firing the Nets’ way. Expect, well, for the kind words from Grievis Vasquez who said he “loves” Kevin Garnett and had nothing put praise for Paul Pierce after Tuesday night’s game when he spoke with Sarah Kustok. Vasquez loves the Nets, but apparently no one else in Toronto does. Meanwhile, a long-time Nets insider asks, “Is that the same Magloire who quit on his teammates and asked for a buyout when he was on the Nets?” The playoffs are one tough room.
“I don’t even think about who’s in the stands, who’s sitting next to me,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “Drake’s over there, yelling at the referees. I hear him, but I don’t see him. My mind is on the court. I think it’s great for our organization to get the hype and all that, but I don’t get caught up in that. That’s one thing I warned our players tonight, in a playoff atmosphere, is to make sure their mind is still on basketball.” The game played out as many Raptors games have this season. They won 100-95, and DeRozan scored a game-high 30 points and made 12 of his 14 free throw attempts. Feisty point guard Kyle Lowry finished with 14, plus nine rebounds, six assists and excellent defense on the Nets’ Deron Williams. Toronto’s frontcourt of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas combined for 31 points and 23 rebounds, bullying Brooklyn on the inside. Three bench players contributed meaningfully.
Bayno has become Valanciunas’ go-to guy on the coaching staff and the young big man takes everything Bayno says at face value. He mentioned to Valanciunas that Vegas was laying odds on his rebounding projections for the series. “They’re saying there’s no way you can get 15 rebounds in the playoffs,” Bayno told him. “Second-year player, first time in the playoffs, there is big money riding on the fact you can’t do that. He thought I was serious.” Bayno eventually admitted that wasn’t necessarily the case, but his point was it’s up to Valanciunas to prove everybody wrong. “Everyone else is saying that,” he said. “That you won’t be able to do that.” In the first game of the series, Valanciunas had 17 points and 18 rebounds. In the second, he had 15 points and 14 rebounds, so clearly Bayno’s motivation is having an impact. When Bayno got Valanciunas through his confidence lull earlier this season, it was just a matter of explaining what was important.
“There are a lot of positive things we’ve done these first two games,” coach Jason Kidd said when this 100-95 loss to the Raptors was done, when Toronto evened the series at a game apiece by rallying back from a five-point deficit at a time when it seemed the Nets were on the verge of sneaking back to Brooklyn with a two-game cushion. “Now we just have to go home, and protect home.” They had the Raptors down and muttering to themselves. They had played as poorly as you can fathom for the game’s first 24 minutes, should have been down 16 but were only down six, then started to put a professional hit on the home team. The Raptors had consumed themselves with so many outside issues, from the refs to the shot clock to the odd flickers of conspiracy.
“Tonight was our worst fourth-quarter defense in a long time . . . when you allow 36 points, so many offensive rebounds, we have to do a better job of competing on the rebounds and giving ourselves a chance.” It probably didn’t help that Jason Kidd waited until there was 6:18 left to reinsert three of their starters. The bench, which played much better than it did in the series opener and racked up 30 total points, couldn’t hold a five-point edge early in the fourth. The Nets got outscored 36-29 in the fourth. DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 30 points, hit clutch shots late to seal the win. Toronto was 12-for-16 overall in the fourth. “We can’t have fourth quarters like that,” Kevin Garnett said. “Thirty-six points, that’s too many points for anybody. Preschool. Little League, YMC, Raptors. Too many. Fourth quarters are supposed to be our best quarter defensively. But I don’t think we played our best basketball.
“Me and DeMar were talking about it last night,” said Lowry, one of the co-stars of this Raptors show. “The chemistry (here) is unbelievable and I can pick up my phone and call any one of my teammates and have a conversation, serious, jokingly. This is just cool. It’s great to have a group of guys who just really get along. “We really are like a band of brothers … I like my teammates. I love my teammates. I’ll tell anybody that first-hand. I really appreciate every day being with these guys. I look forward to talking with them and joking with them and having fun with them. It’s rare you get a team like this. So you have to take advantage of the full opportunity that I have. And I’m taking advantage of the opportunity that I have this year with these guys.”
“That’s what he does,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Those shots he takes, I think they’re good shots for him. You’re probably not going to be able to get to the rim every time against this team because they do a great job of packing the paint. What we’ve got to do, and DeMar did it, is take in-between shots, some mid-range shots, basically the shots the defence is giving you, and not try to force it past that. He’s grown, he’s still not a finished product. We’re just seeing the beginning of a guy becoming a star.” “If I feel I can get the shot off,” DeRozan said, “I feel like it’s got a good chance of going in. At some point, for DeRozan and the Raptors to ascend to the next level, he will likely have to find a way to not only hit hard shots, but to create easier ones. Of course, the continued offensive development of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross could make DeRozan’s task a lot easier.
“It wasn’t necessarily not being able to join my teammates,” DeRozan said, explaining his solo act. “It was my competitive spirit. I was a little frustrated, just calming myself down. A little frustrated I couldn’t be out there with my team especially at that critical moment. It was just me keeping myself together.” When he came back at 3:48, he came back big. DeRozan, who picked up his fifth foul and sat at 7:13, hit a pair of jumpers, from 20 and 18 feet, just 35 ticks apart for a four-point lead. And then he applied the backbreaker with six free throws in the final 20.6 seconds. “He made every [big] shot. He made his free throws. He was great,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said.
Drawing offensive fouls was Lowry’s secret weapon this season—the best in his eight-year career, during which he averaged career highs in points and assists per game (17.9 and 7.4, respectively). In fact, there was no one better at drawing offensive fouls—it wasn’t even close. Eighty-four. That’s how many offensive fouls Lowry drew this season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Derek Fisher was second with 55. To put into perspective how good Lowry was, the league leader over the previous five seasons drew an average of 56.2 offensive fouls.
Jonas Valanciunas: 1st player with 30 pts/30 rebounds in 1st 2 career playoff games since Ralph Sampson/Sam Perkins (1985) (@eliassports)
DeRozan will be fine, but he pooped the bed in his first playoff game, and Toronto has an interesting dilemma now: Get DeRozan going by force-feeding him for midrange shots, as the Raptors did in the second half, or redirect more of the offense into pick-and-rolls? Any pick-and-roll involving Jonas Valanciunas will bring Brooklyn’s lone big man away from the hoop, potentially opening up a flood of offensive rebounds for Toronto against the glass-challenged Nets