And in a way, that is perfect for these Raptors. For a team whose failure was assumed an inevitability and whose success was questioned all season long, they are now back where they were both before Game 1 and before the season started: as unquestioned underdogs, as the overlooked. Ross this series, the Raptors are down to just six players that they can hope for a little punch from: Lowry, DeRozan, Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. “To listen to some of this, we may as well not play Game 7,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after answering a few negatively tinged questions on Friday night. “Every game is different and I know our team will bounce back. We’ve got to come out of the gates a lot fresher, a lot harder, especially starting on the defensive end of the floor. Rebounding, 50-50 balls, transition defence, guarding the perimeter, having bigs at the rim, all of those things are a lack of defensive focus, and that’s where it all started.” There is no reason to doubt that the Raptors are going to throw their hardest punch, if not their most technically sound. This team has gotten by on snarl, effort and defiance all year long.
If the Raptors can figure out a way to punish the Nets for double-teaming point guard Kyle Lowry, it will go a long way toward loosening up the offence enough to allow Lowry and others to thrive. It hasn’t been easy to do throughout the series but when the Raptors have been able to move the defence around with quick and crisp decisions, they have been able to thrive. “Quicker reads, quicker passes out of it and we can set them up with the double-team,” said Casey. “That’s something that we worked on today, making sure that guys are where they’re supposed to be. We welcome it. We want to embrace it. “Now we’ve got to make the right reads out of it. That’s the key.”
“This game will go down in memory or in history,” said the veteran Hayes. “It could be one of your great performances, a so-so performance but people will always remember a Game 7. So how do you want to be remembered?” The Nets, on the other hand, were built for this moment. They are the most expensive NBA team ever assembled, a roster loaded with perennial all-stars and future hall of famers. As such, the pressure is on them to deliver. “We ain’t got no 100 million, whatever payroll they got,” said DeRozan. “Hey, that’s all on them. We understand what we have to do and we’re going to go out there wanting it. At the end of the day they have more to lose than us.”
If you missed it, Blatche, a veteran big man Washington once paid $23 million to get away from, said before Game 6 that the series would be extended. Then, after the Nets won on Friday, Blatche said: “We guarantee we’re going to go (to Toronto) and take care of business and go to Miami.” Even if you are that confident, why fire up the other side? While the top Nets spoke of expecting the resilient Raptors to be tough to take out, Blatche was busy getting his opponents riled up. They responded Saturday. “We’re going to see what happens. I don’t know, who does he think he is?” said backup point guard Greivis Vasquez, one of the Raptors’ best performers in the series, so far. “He’s not (Kevin Garnett) or Paul Pierce or Jason Kidd. But, you know, we’re not going to listen to this nonsense. He’s gotta earn that, and he hasn’t yet.” DeMar DeRozan took a bit of a lighter view. “I don’t care what he said,” the Raps’ all-star swingman shrugged. “He can say what he wants, honestly. He can go out there and say he’s going to hit the lottery tomorrow.”
The Nets have won all three games that Williams scored 20 or more points, and lost all three when he scored 15 or fewer. That’s an admittedly simplistic way to look at it, but it’s also a testament to Williams’s aggressiveness (which is the team’s favorite word in this series), and how his shotmaking changes the team’s chances dramatically. After he came through in Game 6, tonight marks another judgment day for the up-and-down Williams. How he responds could not only make or break this series, but the entire process that started with the Nets acquiring him in 2011 and shortening their window with each move since.
The Raps still have the rebounding advantage over Brooklyn in the series, but that has been decreasing over the past couple of games. What’s been the cause of this? It could be the decrease in minutes for starting center Jonas Valanciunas. After averaging over 30 minutes in the first three games, he’s been in the mid 20s for the last three. Foul trouble has limited his playing time, but when he has managed to stay on the court, he’s been excellent. JV has had three double-doubles in this series & was a point and rebound away from his fourth on Friday. The Raptors haven’t shot well this series, and when he’s in the game, he provides some help on the offensive glass.
The stakes are that high this afternoon. For a Raptors team that has historically majored in disappointing whatever fans it had, this has been a special season. A first-place finish. A reinvigorated public. A new audience. An all-star in DeMar DeRozan and a should’ve-been all-star in Lowry, whose profile across America grows every day — and that does matter. The Raptors began the season with a limited television audience, because of circumstances, of 55,000 viewers. In the fourth quarter of Game 5 with the Nets coming back with force, more than 2 million Canadians were watching on TSN. They were watching opposite Game 7s from the Stanley Cup playoffs, opposite the Blue Jays, with their steady audience. That was the largest audience to ever watch a Raptors game in the 19 years of the franchise. The city is turned on. The country, maybe, is changing its views. This is a team to like, love even. And so much comes down to one game. One game to advance. One game to keep this going, to keep it building, to do what’s never been done before.
The Nets have tried forcing DeMar DeRozan left in this series. DeRozan has hit incredibly tough shots all series long, but in the regular season he shot four percentage points worse from the left elbow than the right and eight percentage points worse from the left corner compared to the right. Garnett and Pierce have been very aggressive doubling DeRozan when he looks to come off a side pick-and-roll, and they must continue to make him uncomfortable for the Nets to get the upper hand. The Nets have run some ICE at DeRozan this series to stop him from getting a screen. Here is a great example…
“We started the game out with the opposite disposition that we wanted to, I thought they came out in a desperate mode and we didn’t,” Casey said after Game 6. If the same script plays out in Toronto, the season likely will be done for the home side. What would help the Raptors get off to a good start at both ends of the floor? The good version of Amir Johnson. The team’s best defender and most efficient inside finisher has only lived up to that advanced billing for parts of the series. Johnson has been great on occasion, brutal on others. Add it all up, and his contribution has been well short of what he usually provides. Johnson is a team-worst -34 in the series. Usually, the team has slipped considerably when he is not on the floor, compared to when he is. There is no doubt Johnson is as banged up as anybody in the series. Perhaps it is time Casey makes the bold move of replacing him with Patrick Patterson, who has played well and provides more scoring to a starting group that has had some issues putting the ball in the hoop.
“Yeah, (knocking out the Nets) was reachable, but we didn’t do small things,” Valanciunas said. “They have experience so, it’s hard to play against them, but we can play. We showed that we can play, but we missed something.” They had better find what was missing and rectify it on Sunday, or else, just like that, this dream season will be over. It was not too difficult to figure out what was missing Friday. Valanciunas knows. “The defence wasn’t working so well. They were making all the shots. They shot 68% (in the first quarter),” he said, before throwing himself under the bus a bit. “Rim protection, I don’t know. Drives, (we) didn’t protect the drives. If we’re consistently following the game plan, we can do it. We can defend. Sometimes that game plan, we just miss (it). We’re just not there. We just miss one second. We’re not in the right place, where we should be. “Now we have to concentrate on Game 7, be serious about it and throw the best shot that we have.”
A feisty Dwane Casey was ready to challenge anyone who even hinted that Brooklyn winning the last game will have some carry-over effect into Sunday. In Casey’s experience, every game is its own animal. What happened in one has no bearing on another. He has been down this road far more times than you and I. But to suggest that what has gone on in the past five quarters isn’t going to have some impact in the seventh and deciding game. Well, how can it not?
The Raptors matter in town. All you need to see is the swell of fans on game nights outside of the Air Canada Center, watching on the big-screen TV in the spring chill. Inside, the Raptors have been busy doing a number on the Nets, taking a 3-2 series lead. If you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like when $189 million — the cost of the Nets this season — falls to the floor, we’re probably about to find out. One more victory against the Nets, and the Raptors will take another unexpected step in a season initially designed to be a rebuilding year. It would also give them a shot at the two-time defending champion Heat — and, by extension, a higher profile in these playoffs. Suddenly, everyone will know a bit more about an under-the-radar team fighting for appreciation, if not respect. That’s the thing about the Raptors. Even now, we still don’t know if they’re actually pretty good, or just pretty fortunate to take advantage of the watered-down East.
Sunday’s contest will be the fourth deciding game in Raptors franchise history — they beat New York and lost to Philadelphia in 2001, and lost to Detroit in 2002 — and will be the first one ever to be played in Toronto. It is sure to be played before an electrified crowd at the Air Canada Centre. “We all grew up watching Game 7s and want to be a part of Game 7s,” said Kyle Lowry. “We’ve still got to go out there and not be too overanxious. We’ve still got to go out there and do what we need to do. “Me personally, I’m not going to be all amped up. It’s going to be a game that we have to go home and win.” To do that, they will have to be exponentially better than they were in Game 6, when the Nets blitzed them in a dominant first half and won somewhat easily.