With Raptors 905 trailing by one point with 34 seconds left, head coach Jesse Mermuys called a 30-second timeout after a Maine Red Claws foul. With possession on the sideline in the offensive end, Mermuys called Scott Suggs’ number. Suggs would miss a runner but the 905 collected the offensive rebound and point guard Delon Wright, on assignment from the parent Toronto Raptors, reset the floor up top with a two-second shot-clock differential.
Ronald Roberts came high to set the screen and Wright unleashed one of his patented amoebic drives, bouncing his way toward the rim for a layup. The layup wouldn’t go, but Raptors’ sophomore Bruno Caboclo crashed the glass, tipping the rebound in with one of his wacky inflatable arm flailing tube man arms.
The crowd of nearly 4,920 erupted in a high-pitched shriek, the children on hand for the first ever “school-day game” roaring for The Face of the 5ive and, it seemed, a potential victory. Had the game ended here, the day would have been perfect, insomuch as any day outside of the classroom for all of these kids could be anything but perfect – the youngest member of the team, the primary reason for the entire D-League experiment, and the player most sought after for autographs and cheered on by the literal bus-loads of youngsters in attendance closing the game out with a tip-in.
Alas, Caboclo’s go-ahead bucket left a few seconds on the clock, and Levi Randolph made a degree-of-difficulty finish at the other hand through three 905 bodies to gibe the lead back to Maine with one second left on the clock. Mermuys was asked about a “defensive breakdown” after the game, but this looked anything but.
“I thought it was a strong play by that kid,” Mermuys said. “I thought we had him on the ropes, we did our job on the switching, we didn’t give anything up as far as easy. I gotta watch the tape but it looked like he finished over three of our guys at the rim with high, athletic hands. So you gotta tip your hat to the kid. That’s a heck of a finish in traffic in crunch time.”
A heck of a finish it was, and the 905 were unable to answer out of a timeout at the other end. Caboclo called for a stationary lob underneath the basket, but that wasn’t the design, would have been far too difficult a pass for Axel Toupane, and would have been nearly impossible to finish from a stand-still even if Caboclo had Roberts’ explosiveness. Instead, the 905 sent Suggs baseline for a quick catch-and-shoot, and Suggs got a decent enough look but misfired. “We got the shot that we wanted,” Mermuys said.
Game, Red Claws, 96-95.
It was a tough way to lose to a pretty good team, but like in Wednesday’s victory, there were plenty of positives to take away.
The crowd was terrific and made for a unique atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre. It’s tough to imagine too much energy for an 11 a.m. Friday start, but 5,000 kids sounds like 15,000 adults, and they all appeared to have had plenty of high-fructose corn syrup at morning recess. From singing The Weeknd well after the public address stopped the song to loudly chanting “De-Fense” on late possessions to exploding for every Roberts dunk and Caboclo three, the kids showed well. The entire idea of bringing youngsters out en masse for a daytime D-League game is a great one, representing a chance not only to do something different but to continue building the brand of both affiliate and parent club in the GTA. It’s a smart marketing ploy for kids who now know the game is fun live and could ask to be brought again, and it’s an effective way to introduce basketball intimately to children who may not yet be familiar. With a low financial barrier to play and a fairly wide availability of outdoor courts in the non-winter months, the exponential growth of basketball in the GTA and in Canada should only continue with efforts like these.
And man, did these kids love Caboclo.
“It was fun. They are very loud and I like that a lot,” Caboclo said.
To reward their support, Caboclo turned in what was probably his second-best game of the D-League season. He was hot early, hitting four triples in the first half, but his shot selection got questionable in the second half as his touches came less frequently. He’d finish with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting and 4-of-9 from outside, adding five rebounds, three blocks, and a steal. The blocks are most notable, as Caboclo played what I thought was his best defensive game of the year (someone disagrees and says Wednesday), using his length effectively to close out and measuring space within the confines of the team defense well. There was a key possession late, too, where he did an excellent job isolated against Omario Johnson.
“Very encouraged,” Mermuys said of Caboclo’s defense. “I thought he’s done a nice job of trying to hone in on defending his position, being a team defender first and an opportunity scorer second, and that’s a big step for him. That’s showing some maturity and some growth. His defense and his use of his length has been extremely valuable to us in the last two games.”
It hasn’t just been Caboclo figuring out the team defense of late. For a second game in a row, the team’s set half-court defense was solid, with Maine shooting 43 percent from the floor and getting to the line just 18 times. The Red Claws bomb a ton of threes, a worry of Mermuys’ before the game, and the 905 did well to chase them away from open looks through three quarters. When turnover problems crept back in during the fourth quarter, Maine began to get some easier looks as the 905 scrambled to get back in transition and rotate quickly, and Maine wound up 13-of-33 from outside as a result.
That was the primary difference, with the 905 hitting 7-of-16 and lacking the long-range guns to play the high-variance game with the Red Claws. They did well, however, to keep Maine away from the rim and get there themselves, including a few very nice play designs to set up alley-oops early in the clock. Roberts (16 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks) was on the receiving end of a few and generally proved too much inside, even with Maine boasting Jordan Mickey (16 points, eight rebounds) as a counter. Those kind of easy baskets are necessary for a team still finding its way on offense, and the risk tradeoff is worth it even given the turnover issues.
It’s unclear what the solution is for said turnovers other than the team just continuing to work and get better as a group.
“You have to be able to play with effort, intensity, and focus, and a brain. And we have to be able to eliminate mistakes, and we’re not even in that position at the end of the game,” Mermuys said. “There was a lot of mistakes out there tonight that we could have avoided, and they’re not for lack of trying. But they need to be able to play with extreme effort and a brain, and that’s hard to do. That’s what young players struggle with.”
Wright had a much better game in that regard, shaking off any PTSD from Myck Kabongo’s ball pressure on Wednesday to post a turnover-free game. He finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, but it’s quickly becoming easy to lose sight of how solid he’s playing because he appears effortless and in control; poise doesn’t stand out. Still, that’s what’s expected of him, so it’s hard to get too high or, more importantly, too complacent.
“Very solid. He has a lot of expectations out of this organization. We’re really huge fans of his ability as a player and what we see for him for the future,” Mermuys said. “So it’s probably going to be rare that I come in here and end up applauding his games or his effort just because we have extremely high expectations. I’m always going to be wanting more.”
The hope is that the 5,000 kids in attendance left wanting more, too. What a terrible segue…can I really end it like that? No, probably not.
Wright, Caboclo, and the 905 defense will get a chance to build on some of this week’s momentum (yes, it’s there, even after a loss) Sunday when the Westchester Knicks visit.