Right now, he might be the Raptors’ third most valuable big man. Valanciunas has dominated on the glass, and has generally outplayed the declining Kevin Garnett. However, he will never have the versatility of Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson. When they are together on the floor, defensive magic happens. “Amir is pretty much like me,” Patterson said on Wednesday, right before the Raptors took off for New York. They practised at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Thursday, where they will play Game 3 of their first-round series on Friday evening. “We’re pretty much the same: active, energetic, able to move our feet, use our quickness and be vertical at the rim, block shots, get rebounds and just cover a lot of space out there.” That is beautiful in the short term, but it will become problematic as soon as the year ends. Having both players on the Raptors roster is a luxury, and it might be something Masai Ujiri decides his team cannot afford.
When the Nets players and head coach Jason Kidd weren’t being peppered with questions about what the crowd may be like, they spoke about the need to tighten up defensively and find a way to rebound better. So it’s not like the home-court advantage will be decisive in and of itself. And Johnson did strike a cautionary note amidst all the barbs. “We understand that this is not going to be easy by any means. It’s going to be tough, I mean, just look around throughout the league, the playoffs, a lot of teams have been losing at home so we want to be very conscious of that and really come out and try and set the tone early.”
The other reason, of course, is that Garnett can’t bully the Raptors anymore. In the old days Garnett would have been a dominant force in this series, and might have even tried to clamber inside a selected Raptor’s head. Instead, he’s pointing at Toronto’s GM because other than mid-range jump shots Garnett is calcifying, bad back and all. He was never a Charles Oakley type anyway, but Garnett can’t even pretend to be a bully anymore, because he’s not the man he was. “Ain’t no bullies in this NBA,” said Kyle Lowry. “Ain’t no bullies in the league. I don’t think we’re going to be intimidated by anybody.” And that’s the arc of this series, as it goes.
Johnson’s efforts won’t get him the same sort of headlines as DeRozan, but that’s nothing new and not a concern. His teammates appreciate the difference it makes when he sets a hard screen. While his 10.4 points-per-game average is pedestrian, some metrics scream superstar. A two-handed dunk off an inbounds play at the end of the game was Johnson’s most memorable play, but Toronto wouldn’t have been in that position without all he quietly did earlier. Johnson spent part of his evening chasing Paul Pierce around on the perimeter and part of it banging inside. Johnson ended up with 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting, plus nine boards and two blocks. As always with him, though, it wasn’t only the numbers. He’d pledged beforehand to beat his man down the floor and provide a lift. That’s just part of his job description. “He means a lot, man,” Raptors point guard Greivis Vasquez said. “He’s our energy guy. He’s the unknown factor of this team. We need him. I believe he is kind of like the heart of the team.”
Pierce was less specific but just as enthusiastic. “I expect it to be a nice, ruckus, rowdy crowd, that’s what a lot of playoff crowds are about, they’re hungry for it,” said Pierce who’s played in 138 playoff games. None of the Nets players or coaches have yet to refer to Ujiri by name. Kidd claimed he didn’t know who the name of the Raptor GM On Thursday, Garnett referred to him as “this kid.” Pierce and Jason Collins have called him Bryan Colangelo, the man Ujiri replaced last summer. Meanwhile, plans for the return of playoff basketball to Brooklyn started getting spun out. The Nets have been silent about what celebrities –other than a famous Russian oligarch– will be in the crowd. Brett Yormark, who’s been noting the Nets are on the only playoff game in town, encouraged fans to bring it Friday. “We are expecting our fans to bring their passion and their Brooklyn Chant like never before,” said the Brooklyn Nets CEO. “This series is sparking a great amount of conversation on social media and throughout the borough.
Raptors: Team got away with another turnover-prone night in Game 2, but it’s not a good habit when playing on the road in a hostile environment … A lot of the Raptors’ issues are self-induced — too many dribbles, careless, sometimes casual, ball-handling — as opposed to stifling Nets pressure … In two games, Toronto turned the ball over a total of 40 times, leading to 34 points — not good, and it’ll doom the team on the road … Keys for the Raptors: Continue to control the boards, contest shots and try to play smart basketball in transition … Both teams have yet to play a complete game as they still try to get a feel for one another … DeMar DeRozan stepped up big time in the fourth quarter — it’s now time for Kyle Lowry to dominate.
Nets playoff slogan is: “FOR BROOKLYN.” Also, “NBA playoffs only in Brooklyn” is being used as well. The slogan(s) could be taken in two ways: One being a jab at the Knicks who missed the playoffs, giving the Nets the supremacy in New York. Second, it gives Brooklyn natives and fans a sense of pride to represent the borough.
DeRozan said he’s a fan of his game and catches the late-night games after studying film of his own play. He hopes his success and that of Aldridge will open some eyes, insisting that the mid-range game still has value. “When they said you’ve got to play a certain style of basketball (shooting three-pointers and getting to the rim), if you’re doing something that works, why go away from it?” DeRozan asked. “I remember when LaMarcus first came into the league, that was the knock on him: He was too soft, he wouldn’t post up, whatever. “Now he can make an argument he’s one of the best power forwards in the game. Whatever works, go for it.”
“I’m expecting the crowd to be very very into it, uh, Brooklyn-style, and I’m looking forward to us taking care of home,” he said. Garnett wants to see if that crowd can measure up to Toronto’s raucous supporters, especially after all of the talking that has gone on. “Very eager. Very eager. Very eager to see how they respond to the F-Brooklyn. Very, very eager to see how they respond to those kids sitting in our arena,” Garnett said, we believe referring to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. “I don’t know if that’s going to be … We’ll see. Put it like that. We’ll see.” Garnett said he wasn’t sure exactly how the crowd would behave. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I’ve never had a series in Brooklyn before. I never said ‘F-Brooklyn,’ (either) before so we’re about to see what that’s like.”
Sam Mitchell, his former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate when Garnett came into the league in 1995 as the No. 5 pick overall, was his primary professional mentor. “He was always professional,” said Garnett. “He was confident in who he was. He was a leader. He didn’t follow. True leaders can look at themselves and say they messed up or they weren’t perfect but they gave everything. They cared. They cared, man. “I have a father somewhere. I don’t know anything about him. But when I think about what I want a father to be, when I think about what a grown man should be, those are the things I think about.”
Watching it all was Diar’s Mom and DeRozan’s fiancée Kiara, who remembers arriving in Toronto from Los Angeles in 2009 to join a young team full of strangers far away from her native California. Now she feels like she’s home. And the Raptors? They seem like a family. A very big, very young, family. Kiara was in charge of putting together the team’s Easter baskets on the weekend, which were distributed in the Raptors over-flowing family lounge just off the dressing room at the ACC. It was no small task. “I went into Mom mode,” she said.
“I don’t think we’re going to be intimidated by anybody,” Lowry said after a team practice on Thursday at the Barclays Center. “They’re just players. You respect them. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, those guys have got rings. They’ve got points, they’ve got accolades, they have all those things … They have unbelievable feats, they’ve got everything you need, they’ve done it. Gold medals, rings. But we’ve got to start somewhere,” Lowry said, repeating what has become something of a mantra lately for this group. You’ve got to start somewhere and everyone starts somewhere. For these Raptors, it was starting from nowhere: As an afterthought heading into the season. A top contender in the Andrew Wiggins derby. Now they have a new starting point. They’re the Atlantic Division champions, all even with the highest-paid team in NBA history in what now is a best-of-five series. There is no time to spare gawking at the future hall of famers on the other side.
On how the Raptors will fare in the rest of their first-round playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets: “I still think they’re going to beat Brooklyn … You never know how teams are going to react in the playoffs, especially young guys. And the Raptors are a very young team … but now I think they’re fine.”
“We used to get Jason’s ideas because we knew we had to sell him on our game plans in Dallas to make sure he was on board, because he would help sell it to the other guys – Dirk [Nowitzki], Tyson [Chandler] and the others,” Casey said. “So I would often run things by him, talk to him about certain things defensively. He had a great basketball mind when he was playing … he was way ahead of the curve as far as ideas and schemes he wanted to try to guard people. You knew he thought like a coach as a player, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing a good job with this [Brooklyn] team.”
Fresh off of a breakout campaign which featured averages of 11.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG, the budding superstar has been one of the league’s best in the blocks with 16.8 PPG and 11.0 RPG in the month of April, and flourished in his role as the most important piece of Toronto’s low-post puzzle. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ross wrapped up his second year in the league with less than 10 points in four of the last six games. And outside of his 24-point performance in Toronto’s win on April 4, the former first-round draft pick only surpassed the 20-point plateau once in his final 11 regular season appearances.
The Nets were outrebounded, 52-30, in Game 2, causing Paul Pierce to call the interior effort “soft.” The Nets are going to be outrebounded by a bigger, more athletic Toronto team, but they must make a point of not being beaten so badly.
Playing at the highest level is something that has been synonymous with Paul Pierce throughout his entire career, but the Nets veteran went cold in Game 2. After a masterful performance in Game 1 where he finished with 15, including scoring six-straight points in the fourth quarter to give his team a lead that they would not relinquish, the man nicknamed “The Truth” cut an anonymous figure in Game 2, going 2-for-11 from the floor and finishing with only seven points. Nets coach Jason Kidd, though, doesn’t think Pierce has given him anything to worry about in Game 3. “No matter what he shot in the last game, he had great looks and they just went in and out, and so there’s nothing in the sense of changing what Paul’s going to do,” Kidd said of Pierce, who missed two open threes in the game’s final 30 seconds. “He’s a very smart player, he understands time and situation and … there’s no concern.”
“I love this kid,” he told me, emphasizing the word kid. “I don’t know if we can get him, but believe me, we’re going to do everything possible. I mean, everything possible.” The kid from Farragut Academy in Chicago via Mauldin High in South Carolina? Kevin Garnett. Isiah even had a plan for Garnett as a first-year player out of high school. He didn’t want him playing road games. He didn’t think he was ready for the travel and the NBA lifestyle. He wanted him to take some college courses, just to have some kind of normal life. He had all that worked out in his mind before the draft. And then draft night happened, and Joe Smith went to Golden State first and Antonio McDyess went to the Clippers second (before being traded) and Thomas was getting excited. Jerry Stackhouse then went to Philadelphia and Rasheed Wallace to Washington, who were Bullets, not Wizards, in those days.
Yes, the Raptors had four more wins at home this season than they had on the road. The record tells you that. What it doesn’t tell you is the feeling most of the Raptors have about playing on the road. This is a different group. They are young and they have embraced the role of underdog. That comes out even a little more when they’re playing in someone else’s arena. Even in this Eastern Conference quarter-final with Brooklyn, a series in which they are the higher seed, the Raptors for the most part consider themselves the chaser, not the chasee. The fact that the odds makers in Vegas agree with that notion doesn’t make it true, but it does make it much more likely. And that’s perfectly fine with the Raps. From the very first road trip of the year to Atlanta and Milwaukee, the Raps have just seemed comfortable away from home.
The game was incredibly tight and as I walked into the kitchen to get some water, I mumble to my brother-in-law, “This is not good.” He replies, “This is really good.” I looked at him wondering to myself what game he’s watching.. they’re obviously struggling… and say “Really?” To which he replies, “We gotta think positive.” >> Ouch. I just got caught in my own game. I spend almost every waking moment studying and teaching people on how to effectively think positive and here I was dropping the ball (no pun intended) in this situation.