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Game 7: Then and Now

The two greatest words in sports they say – game seven. Yes, this has really developed into a 7-game series. Some of us called a sweep (seriously?), some 5, or if you were like me, you might’ve thought 6. I didn’t meet a lot of 7-game predictors, save for Zarar and a few co-workers, but deep down, I think all die-hard Raptors fans can relate to the “surprised but not shocked” attitude I’ve adopted over this past week. Could we have really expected it to be easy?

So, why is a game seven so disappointing? Or as DeMar says, why do we automatically revert to thinking this is a funeral? Well, it really just boils down to one word, that seperates this year’s Toronto team from years of the past – expectations.  Coming into Training Camp in early October, the narratives of this Raptors team were Kyle Lowry’s svelt new look, the new jerseys (sort of), and the expectations. The expectations were made crystal clear – it wasn’t to win the division, it wasn’t really to win 50+ games, or even get a top 3-seed. The goal was advancing at least one round in the playoffs. The East was expected to be better, which it was, but things just clicked for the Raptors.

And as the year progressed, this team proved to be different than last year’s iso-heavy, over-helping, scrambling team that was promptly bounced from the playoffs by the Wizards. The Raptors played defense (improvement from 23rd to 11th in the league in defensive efficiency during the regular season), they played harder, and they had a much deeper team to boast on most nights. Heck, just a few weeks ago, we were talking about a blowout of this very Pacers team fighting for their playoff lives, at the hands of Norman Powell, Delon Wright and company. The Raptors were deep, they were (apparently) healthy, and things just seemed like they would fall into place in the first round.

Nets vs Raptors – 2014 NBA Playoffs

Now that’s it’s been 2 years since the previous game 7 for the Raptors, it’s interesting to ask – what’s changed? How has Masai Ujiri’s re-tooling of the roster and Dwane Casey’s lessons learned played a part in the Raptors’ development since then, if any?

The 2013/2014 Raptors team was one that featured the same core weapons as today obviously, with Lowry and DeRozan still the focal point of the offense. Terrence Ross was a starter and was (believe it or not), one of our best on-the-ball defenders. JV was the big man of the future, with an improving offensive game that was a bonus on most nights to Lowry and DeRozan’s offensive production. The rotation was complimented by other contributions from Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, and Terrence Ross (the 51-point game was in January 2014 against the Clippers). Talent-wise, there’s almost no question that our team back then was simply not as talented as it is now. But with almost no expectations from the rest of the league and a fanbase expecting the team to tank after trading Rudy Gay, there was a crazy surprise factor that year. Teams that scouted against the Raptors had never expected a point guard as dynamic and tough as Kyle Lowry, a scorer of DeRozan’s calibre, and the surprising chemistry that was created in this franchise, which at one point in the season was ready to bow down and rebuild.

So what did that mean? It led to an all-star season for DeMar DeRozan, a should-have-been all-star season for Lowry, a division title for the first time in 7 years, and a playoff appearance for the first time in 6 years. And when the post-season rolled around, it wasn’t so much as winning a first round, as it was about enjoying every minute of just being in the post season. I’m not saying we weren’t trying to win – we hated Brooklyn’s guts, and fought to the last second of that series. But, the end of the series felt like a new era was on the horizon. The future of the franchise was in the capable hands of Masai Ujiri, and it really and truly felt like the start of something special.

These are some pretty noisy statistics in the table below I will warn you, given the Raptors have a completely different team than in 2014, new strategies, and a new playoff opponent. But, I wanted to tabulate all of this just to see what it looked like. In a lot of ways, many of the variables have actually been controlled in the analysis – Indiana and Brooklyn are both veteran teams, that had slightly above average seasons, and, despite Brooklyn’s “all-in” mentality, on paper, they were on a similar level as Indiana. In fact, once could even make the argument, Indiana’s defense being third in the league, makes them better than Brooklyn’s middle-of-the-pack lineup that in reality, just wasn’t that good. Sure, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson could light it up on occassion, but neither of them were in their prime, and Garnett and Pierce were essentially fourth-quarter veterans that were complimentary locker-room pieces. The overall feeling was that the Raptors were the better team, but the Nets were just way more experienced.

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These numbers against Indiana are pretty disappointing to the say the least – we’ve struggled to score (largely because of Indiana’s defensive pressure), but we’re also not assisting as many baskets or getting to the line as much as that 2014 team. And with the Pacers’ physical play to be expected and DeRozan’s improved ability to the get to the line this season, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. Granted the refs have been inconsistent, and have let a lot of things slide, but those are things we just didn’t expect coming into this series.

Some aspects are better this year – such as rebounding. But the turnovers, similar to that Nets series, have been a worrisome trend. Ball security is just as important as rebounding – it has a direct impact on the number of possessions you have. Turnovers are essentially negative rebounds, and so despite the Raptors’ rebounding edge on paper, it really doesn’t matter. Not to mention, if it’s combined with poor shooting to begin with (especially from your 2 stars), I’m not sure winning is really even a possibility.

Going back to the earlier point, this team was supposed to be more balanced, more experienced (two years of playoffs experience, and the addition of Cory Joseph was obviously huge), and so many of those playoff lessons were expected to be learned and applied by this stage. A competitive series in the playoffs for the first time can teach a young core of players a ton of lessons – and in Game 7 that year, there were a ton of things the Raptors could note.

Just take the last possession of that game for example. The Raps had a brainfart and didn’t know what side of the court they were inbounding from – leading to a confusing inbounds play, a possession without any spacing, and a game-winning block by Paul Pierce on Kyle Lowry.

And despite that disappointment, that shot was the beginning of something – the entire ACC stood in silence for 15 seconds, but then immediately burst into encouraging rounds of applause. The fan base was proud of their team for battling all season and knew that a bright future seemed to be upcoming. We all knew at the time that notwithstanding the heartbreak, those mistakes would be learned from. Dwane Casey and company would go back to the drawing board, learn from their mistakes, make adjustments quicker, and learn to coach in the playoffs – a wildly different animal than the deceptive regular season.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

It was the 28 points of Kyle Lowry that led the Raptors that afternoon, and not to the surprise of most Raptors fans, tonight’s game will be an absolute wash if Lowry and DeRozan are absent. We might be able to withstand one not showing up, but at least one of the 2 all-stars will need to step up if the Raptors want to stick it the Pacers and exorcise those first-round playoff demons. It’s really just that simple.

Secondly, we’re really going to need a big performance from Patrick Patterson. If you’ll recall, 2014’s Game 7 against the Nets started slow. But, it was the unlikely contribution of starting PF Amir Johnson that kept the Raps afloat early on; Tall Money had the game of his life before fouling out in the fourth quarter, hobbling around on whatever remained of his ankles. And with Valanciunas being neutralized to an extent in the latter half of this series, it’s going to up to the likes of Patrick Patterson, and in odd cases, DeMarre Carroll, to not only contribute offensively, but crash the glass as well (Patterson is traditionally not the best rebounder, especially against the taller and longer Myles Turner).

And lastly, it’s the mental. Just like how yesterday’s practice for the Raptors, was mostly a “clear our heads” type of practice as Lowry had stated, Dwane Casey knows that X’s and O’s at this point, can only make a marginal difference. As cliché as it sounds, at this stage, it’s really just about heart, hustle, and mental toughness. Remember that crazy hard exam you studied for in university? Chances are, if you were going to ace it, you weren’t studying the night before.

Most of the mental toughness aspect is hard to quantify – but there are a few symptons I’d like to see avoided. Number one – turnovers have been a huge issue, largely the result of poor offensive execution and shot selection, as well as lapses in concentration when passing the ball. This one is on DeMar and Kyle more than anyone else – it’s up to your all-star backcourt, to set the tone by taking care of the rock, making the simple pass (especially early in the game), take the best shot available, and get others involved if the shot isn’t falling. The other symptom is missed open shots and/or missed free throws – those are just signs of nerves and discomfort with the moment. And in the case of Lowry, it appears like it’s the injury to his elbow. Game 6 seemed to have confirmed that when Kyle, who just after making a shot, would promptly brick the next. Things just didn’t seem right. So getting Lowry going early, or recognizing that there are other ways he can impact the game, will be super critical.

Sooo…while all of that probably didn’t make a ton of sense or add insightful value to the game, the progression of the Raptors since that Game 7 loss to tonight is still pretty interesting to think about. And you can bet Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will be thinking about that game tonight as well. This is it, fans. This is for all (or maybe just some) of the marbles. As DeRozan said after practice yesterday, this season will be a failure if we lose today. Though Coach Casey said that’s not entirely true given all the other accomplishments in the season, I’m not buying it. Nor is any Raptor fan I’m sure. Division titles and winning regular seasons have lost their lustre with this fan base and franchise. It comes down to post-season success, and Masai knows that. Tonight’s game could be the last we see of this Raptors core as we see it, or it could be the glorious, yet underwhelming, start to our elusive second round playoff fantasy. Just a few more hours my friends.

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