How many years ago does the Rudy Gay trade feel like it was now? Do you even remember a time before Wheels and his letterman jacket sat courtside? Even the game one shot clock fiasco feels like forever ago now.
If you had of told anyone, fifteen games into the season, that you would fully expect this Raptors team to beat Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko in a seven game series, you would have gotten laughed out of the room. And yet, yesterday afternoon, they came as close as you can possibly come to doing exactly that. And they did it while hardly ever finding their stride for more than one or two quarters a game. This team has hardly scratched the surface of what they can become.
Having said that, there is certainly some serious frustration to how much they struggled to reach that ceiling yesterday, and throughout the entire series. It feels like they could and should have done some things differently. So it goes. While I’ll definitely get in to that, I absolutely do not want to lose focus on how impressive this team has been, how hard they’ve played and how much they’ve grown. The leaps this squad made on both the individual and team levels were simply huge. I think that there is a tendency to expect them to keep continually making those seismic leaps in increasingly short timespans (I’m certainly among those guilty of this.). That’s both unfair and completely unrealistic. Let’s not lose sight of how far this team has come, and how long and especially how hard it is to get to where they want to be. The Spurs did not become the Spurs over the course of a single playoff series, or even a single season. Their sustained level of development and success comes from years of growth. You pound the rock every day. The 2013-2014 Raptors hammered the quarry hard this year, and they deserve every moment of enthusiasm and ovations that they got. Keep on clapping for these guys.
So, 103-104: what happened?
What happened is that, from the end of the 1st quarter to the midway point of the 4th, the Raptors were outplayed, and badly. Joe Johnson continued to be able to do whatever kind of Joe Johnson things that he wanted to do. It would have been nice to see Fields healthy enough to have spent more time guarding him, but that’s the story of his entire season. Joe Johnson is impossible to guard, just ask Paul Pierce. The Nets hit more of the 3-point shots in this game that they had been missing earlier in the series. That was bound to happen eventually, and it was a problem. The Nets settled for offense a lot in this game, and they were bailed out by hitting those jumpers and by Marcus Thornton going on a single-handed offensive run in the first half and then Joe Johnson scoring 9 straight points himself in the second.
On the Raptors side of things, they suffered from the same problems offensively that they did all series. They put the ball in low early and ran pick and rolls that actually involved the rolling big man. The result was 18 first half points for Amir Johnson. Amir finally looked like maybe a sprained ankle is indeed something to play with, as he was fantastic putting up 20 and 10 in just 22 minutes of play. Unfortunately, Amir also got all of the fouls. Some were just trying to play defense, some were on him, and his final foul that put him out of the game was infuriating. After the Raptors could not get a call on offense and came out on the wrong end of two completely botched calls against the Raptors on defense that should have been offensive fouls. Amir Johnson fouled out of the game when he stumbled to the ground after jumping for a rebound and accidentally fell into the player just behind him. If you didn’t throw your remote control at that moment, then I salute your self-control. You’re a better man or woman than I.
After the first quarter ended, the Raptors completely abandoned the paint under the basket for the rest of the game. The ball spent most of the rest of the game dying along the perimeter as it has all season. The Raptors inability to adapt in any way offensively has been a big problem. Valanciunas had a poor performance rebounding defensively, but he was left on an absolute island offensively. Because of course he was. He was left on an island on the bench for much of the second half too, in favor of Chuck Hayes at centre for a long stretch. Because of course he was. I understand what Coach Casey is trying to do with some of the lineup choices that he makes, and I understand that he only has the options that are on the bench. But it was yet another example of how he takes 4 or 5 damaging possessions too long to figure out what everyone yelling at their televisions is already long hip to: this isn’t working! So it goes.
The official word on DeMar is that he was suffering from the flu yesterday. Not all men are Michael Jordan, able to cartoonishly battle through all obstacles in their way. I can’t imagine trying to push through 40 minutes of a game 7 with the flu after carrying as much of the offense as he has over the series. Criticize DeMar’s performance if you will, it’s pretty much all I’ve ever done with the guy. But everything after game one was as much or more than I expected from him. There are obvious holes in his game, but he showed some new heights under the biggest of spotlights and played his ass off all series.
The final play of last night was a perfect microcosm of the series. After a run of stout defense and fourth quarter determination got the Raptors back in a game they had no business winning, their season ended on a complete absence of offensive creativity. I’m not trying to hand this around Lowry’s neck; he fought like hell through 3 guys before finally getting blocked by Pierce, the fourth defender. But that’s entirely the point. Why are you running a perimeter pick and roll for Lowry with 6 seconds ticking away? It allowed Brooklyn to double team the ball handler, Lowry, in the exact same way that they’d been enjoying success doing all game. With 6 seconds on the clock, there isn’t enough time for Lowry to pass out of it and work the ball around to the open man on the weakside. And there was more than one open man. But they were standing still, because they knew, just like Brooklyn did, that the play was going to be all Kyle. It’s a problem. Brooklyn wasn’t flummoxed by much of what the Raptors did on the perimeter all series. Their offense just counted on DeRozan, Lowry or Vasquez to fight through it anyways. The Raptors inability to scheme plays and systems that generate open shots without asking their guards to fight their way to the basket slowed them down all series, and it eventually cost them the most important bucket of the season. I struggle to find fault with Lowry’s decision making on the last play. It was bad, but what was he supposed to do? He’s focused on trying to get the most important shot of his career off, which is what he’s just been instructed to do. Ross was available for a pass when the double team first hit, but that would have put the ball in Ross’ hands 6 feet outside the 3 point line with 4 seconds left and the defense closing on him hard. Not an ideal shot. By the time Lowry split the defenders and pushed towards the basket he didn’t have the time nor control to do anything but put something up. I was impressed that he kept control and got to the basket. I would loved for that play to have gone differently, and I would have loved even more for that play to have not been called at all. That play was a hot mess before it even started.
And so, the end cometh. That’s it. It’s tough to accept that just like that, the season’s over. We’ve all become so used to the Raptors season ending with both teams emptying their benches on some idle Tuesday night game against the Knicks in mid April. This season got a much more interesting third act. For that I’m thankful. Raptors fans have an awful lot to take out of the last few weeks. Think about everything we’ve learned about 24-second clock power sources, lint rollers, Kyle Lowry’s indomitable will and basic geographically inspired urban-themed sports marketing. We got confirmation that Landry Fields is alive. We proved that Toronto fans>Brooklyn fans, and that it isn’t even close. We found out that our GM has a potty mouth, and that was kind of great. We finally beat-out hockey for ratings and even made it to the first segment on SportsCentre. We found out why so many different fanbases hate Kevin Garnett, and quickly came to agree with them. We lost Terrence Ross for six games and 47 minutes, but we finally found him for one minute of awesomeness where he damn well near made up for all of it and then some. We spent the last month with the Raptors being the biggest deal and top news story by far in Toronto while the hockey playoffs were on, a Provincial election was triggered and another Rob Ford crack video came out. It cannot be overemphasized how recently that seemed impossible. Now it’s here. Kyle Lowry. DeMar DeRozan. Amir Johnson. Jonas Valanciunas. Terrence Ross. Greivis Vasquez. Patrick Patterson. Salmons, Fields, Hayes, De Colo, Hansbrough and Novak. This team, man.
I want this shit forever.