It’s a tad ironic that after the extended two days between games schedule that’s characterized this series, we finally get a one day break when literally 100 per cent of Raptor fans are just now beginning to recover from the quadruple-bypass level heart attack that was delivered on Wednesday night.
The basketball gods are good (cruel, but good), though, and so, having made it out the other end, the Raptors’ (and our) reward is a trip to Brooklyn tonight with a chance to close out the team’s first playoff series since the Carter era. To call tonight a huge game – perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, perhaps a huge chance is more accurate – in Raptor history would be an understatement. It’s the first of two chances to knock out a star-laden team in a huge U.S. media market, with a potential matchup with LeBron and the Heatles looming on the horizon as the ultimate carrot. I’ll say no more about this until the series is over, but rest assured that the greatest player on the planet playing a playoff series in Canada could push the popularity of the NBA – and the Raptors – across the country into the stratosphere.
Managing to get there tonight, though, will be a question of what the endearing legacy of game 5 is. The first three quarters-Raptors could do absolutely no wrong – the ball was zipping around the court, Kyle Lowry was playing out of his mind, the defensive rotations were tight and the decision-making impressive. If those Raptors take the court and can hold that style of play all game, or for even most of the game, this series is theirs.
The fourth quarter Raptors, though, were completely neutralized by aggressive Brooklyn defence, stretch bigs, and Joe Johnson, and found themselves completely deflated to the point where they had to rely on a superhuman Lowry and Andray Blatche’s decision-making. In a weird way, the huge collapse can be seen as a learning experience – playing in the shadow of countless playoff disappointments across the city, these Raptors took the fans’ collective “oh my god, we’re screwed” mentality, embraced it for 10 minutes, and were able to pull themselves out of the well and escape with a win. It’s the kind of thing that should benefit this young group in the long run.
Of course, there are no more moral victories this playoffs. I’ll spare you all the breakdown, because we all know how tight these two teams are at this point – but tonight’s game will be all about mentality. If the Raptors can come out like a house on fire and put up a big number on the Nets in the first half, they might actually find it easier to close things out on the road – the roller coaster of emotions isn’t nearly as steep when the crowd isn’t pulling you up and down with them. If they come out flat, though, a hot home crowd may be difficult to deal with.
That being said, here’s a few things I’d like to see in tonight’s contest:
- Feeding Jonas early and often, and putting him in the crunch-time lineup: Save for Lowry’s incredible performance Wednesday, Jonas has been – by far – the biggest advantage the Raptors have in this series. He can’t carry the scoring load by himself, but the Raptors should be feeding him the ball in the post until the Nets are forced to counter with double-teams, which will open up the Raptor wings and their ball-movement game. I’d also like to see him playing down the stretch. I realize that the Amir/Patterson combo has worked well in these playoffs, but again, this guy is our biggest weapon. If the Raps come up short tonight, it had better not be because he was nailed to the bench (unless there’s early foul trouble).
- Yes to Ross, no to Salmons: Listen, I’m sure John Salmons is a great guy. He’s been around the league forever. However, I’ll take the offensively neutered Terrence Ross we’ve seen over the last few games over the current iteration of John Salmons 100 times out of 100. There were far too many possessions on Wednesday night that were almost sabotaged by Salmons throwing the ball to Chuck Hayes with 3 seconds left in the shot clock, or bricking a 3, or throwing a pass that was ultimately deflected. Even if Terrence Ross isn’t hitting, he’s not a minus on the offensive end, and unless he’s getting completely eviscerated by Joe Johnson, let’s let him ride.
- More wings driving the lane early, please: Joe Johnson was held in check for the first half Wednesday because he was in foul trouble. That’s it. If that’s our best defence against him, well, we have one of the best wings in the league in getting to the line in DeMar DeRozan. Take it at him, young fella.
- Masai Ujiri rescinding his apology pre-game, announcing his candidacy for mayor, and setting a stack of Jay-Z albums on fire: because sometimes you have to fire up the crowd.
Line on Sportsbook as of writing this is Nets -5, with an over/under of 191. 60 per cent of the action is coming in on the Raptors, per ESPN PickCenter.
Me? Sure, I have my doubts on the Raptors being able to close this thing out at home, but I’m going to be on a plane (aargh) for a potential game 7, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be the one to pick against the Raps tonight. RAPS BY 6.
Get loud, get proud, and enjoy – you’re about to watch one of the biggest Raptors’ games of all time. Here’s hoping this group rises to the moment, just like they have all season.