ICYMI from Raptors Republic
The Raptors take Game 2 by climbing on the giant shoulders of Jonas Valanciunas.
“We can always include him more,” Lowry agreed. “But tonight it was just one of those games where he was setting great screens. He didn’t try to ask for the ball, he just went and did it. And that’s just the growth in him. ”
Dwane Casey acknowledged that it would be ideal to get him more second-half touches, pointing out that Valanciunas has improved in a number of key areas. That includes getting his own looks without having plays called for him, and the Raptors’ strategy to get around Miami’s elite rim-protection sees their ball-handlers “midgeting,” which makes post-ups a little clunkier to call.
“We would. Whiteside has done an excellent job with just throwing it inside to him and his post defense,” Casey explained. “We can find more touches for him down there but I think he’s doing a heckuva job, screening, rolling, in-between game is probably what it’s going to be.”
In other words, everyone wants to leverage Valanciunas more, but it’s not immediately clear exactly how they go about that beyond reading and reacting better to his presence within the flow of the game. Valanciunas doesn’t sound too worried about it.
“You can’t just be taking all the shots,” he said. “One day you have three shots and then all of a sudden the ball just falls in your hands. You have to keep playing. We are playing a team sport, not an individual sport.”
“Two words: Vince Carter,” Stoinev explains of how a Sarasota-born, Mexico-raised, traveling performer settled on the Raptors as a team. “I was maybe 10, 12. It was when he was in his prime, right after T-Mac left. I was looking at videos, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, this guy’s the coolest.’ I became a big Vince Carter fan, then Bosh came in Carter’s last (full) season, and I just became a Raptors fan.
“And those were the bad years, so I don’t know how I stuck with it.”
It’s perhaps strange that the Raptors stood out to an American fan looking for a team to latch on to, but despite owning a U.S. passport, Stoinev fits in well with the Raptors’ entire ethos. He may not Be the North, but he’s a Mexican-Bulgarian-American who’s spent the better part of his life untethered from any city or team allegiances. The Raptors have positioned themselves nationally as the other, as the outsider against the other 29 NBA teams, and that’s a mentality and a spirit that resonates with a nomad.
“My family is kind of worldwide,” Stoinev says. “When I was in Indiana (for Games 3 and 6) and the fans were chanting U.S.A., I felt for the Canadians…I’m a big fan. I travel around to watch them. That’s just the toughest part, I guess, is not being able to be near them.”
Stoinev’s relationship with the Raptors isn’t a casual one. Casual fans don’t supplement their Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan jerseys with those of T.J. Ford and Terrence Ross. They also don’t hide their Amir Johnson jersey in a backpack when performing in New Orleans in hopes of getting it signed (Landry Fields provided the stealth hookup).
He’ll drive to Raptors’ road games within a few hours of the Chicago area, where he’s based out of right now, though he’s rarely in one place for long. Stoinev spends enough time on the road that League Pass is a life essential, basketball podcasts (including the Raptors Republic podcast, obviously) are consumed in high volumes, and any chance to talk Raptors is a welcome one.
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The game ball goes to Jonas Valanciunas.
(Stop me if you’ve heard this one before) The Raptors were shy to find Valanciunas early on. Whiteside has been a thorn in their side all series and the Raptors’ guards were more interested in “emptying their clips” rather than threading tough post-entry passes.
Valanciunas inexplicably had just four points on three shots through three quarters. But he saved his best for last.
Even with a lid on the rim, Lowry and DeRozan were still hesitant to find Valanciunas. The big Lithuanian had to take matters into his own hands, collecting two tough putbacks down the stretch — one off a Lowry jumper where he beat two defenders for the rebound and banked it in with his left, another where he overpowered Whiteside for a tip-in following two missed free throws by DeRozan.
Valanciunas also delivered in the few instances where he was asked to post-up. He easily nudged past Whiteside for a signature sweeping right hook, worked another post-up into two free-throws (that stopped a 17–2 Heat run) and in overtime, Valanciunas stopped on a dime off a pick-and-roll to slot home a silky free-throw line jumper.
Most importantly, Valanciunas also brought it on defense. Whiteside shot 1–3 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Valanciunas compounded those struggles with three steals and a massive block on a hook shot from Whiteside.
Valanciunas won that damn game, and the guards should take notice. Feed the fucking big man. We’ve only been saying it for three straight years.
“We can harp on the negatives and beat that drum, beat it to death, but we’re finding other ways to win and that’s very encouraging,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “Again, those guys, they’re not going anywhere, so we’ve got to continue to go with them, find ways to help them get easier shots, and hope they get their rhythm. But there are other ways to win other than shooting the basketball.”
Well, they’re proving that. Casey said he saw Lowry coming back to himself a little, and at least he was taking shots again. But mostly, this was about the Raptors being just good enough to survive their stars, and survive Miami, and survive themselves. It counts.
“At the end of the day we still had a great opportunity to win on the road,” said Heat coach Eric Spoelstra. “They just made more plays down the stretch than we did . . . the last four five minutes, they made those plays.”
In a way, it’s inspiring. Through two games the Raptors have seen their best player retreat into a shell of himself in Game 1, and seen their two stars scatter shots to the wind in Game 2, and have gotten to overtime twice, and won once. In the Indiana series the Raptors played stretches of real defence, but you kept waiting for them to play better, and for their stars to play better, because they couldn’t play much worse. Well, we’re back.
“I felt great, said Lowry, who made seven of 22 shots. “I got so many phone calls and texts from people who care about me, NBA players and friends of mine . . . I just had to go out and have fun and be myself.”
“It’s something I’ve got to deal with,” said DeRozan of his injured thumb. “I’m gonna figure it out . . . Another day of rest and ice and I should be all right next game.”
The end was messy, befitting the game. It was Terrence Ross and Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll who helped drag the Raptors back, and up 82-80 in the final minute, Lowry had to face himself. He’d started well, regressed into clunks and pointless ball fakes, and then he needed a pull-up jumper from the right side. He got it. Wade hit a three, because he’s great, and Lowry had to do it again. Pull-up, left side, got it. Toronto back up three.
Say this about these Raptors. They learn from their mistakes.
Two days after a lacklustre overtime period took the wind out of an Air Canada Centre waiting to explode, the Raptors got a second opportunity and this time did not waste it, earning a hard-fought 96-92 win over the visiting Miami Heat in front of another appreciative sellout crowd and tying the best-of-seven series 1-1.
At the heart of this overtime success was a staunch defence, the kind of defence head coach Dwane Casey has been promising since the beginning of the year would be the difference.
On Thursday night, it was.
The Heat did not score a point in the overtime until all but 24 seconds of the extra period had expired. The visitors would get two with 11 seconds left that the Raptors all but conceded and two more late in the period but that would be it for Miami.
On countless occasions this season, Casey has talked about his team’s resilience and pointed to it as a major factor in their success.
It was on display again in Game 2 as the Raptors appeared on the verge of winning in regulation only to give up a wide open Goran Dragic three to even the score and temporarily hush the crowd.
But with a defensive stand in those first 4:30 of the extra period that Casey might want to frame, the Raptors turned this one back in their favour.
“When we do, you’ll know. It’s grind, honestly. We knew that it wasn’t going to be pretty; nothing was going to come out pretty. As long as we can come out with the W, it really doesn’t matter how we’re playing, but it’s going to come.”
– DeMar DeRozan when asked when the team will get a win that’s more aesthetically pleasing
And as they both showered following their 96-92 victory, they each made stern, impassioned arguments as to why the other guy was to blame for the breakdown.
“The breakdown was Cory Joseph,” Carroll said, half-jokingly, shortly after the shower debate. “I just spent 10 minutes telling him about it. You need to go ask him right now what the breakdown was.”
Okay, let’s do that.
“Yeah, DeMarre and I, we had a little discussion. I say I’m in the right and he says he’s in the right,” Joseph said. “But by no means was I wrong.”
Back to Carroll.
“Me and him are like brothers, so we’ve been arguing about it,” Carroll said. “It got, like, feisty. He’s real feisty. He thinks it wasn’t his fault. But I know it wasn’t my fault.”
This time, the Raptors won the fight, going to overtime for the second straight game to tie the series.
Goran Dragic, Miami’s star guard, got the worst of it, taking an elbow from DeMar DeRozan that required eight stitches after he lost two teeth. The stitches, inside and outside his lower lip, came from his tooth breaking through the skin.
The play, which resulted in a Dragic foul, came as DeRozan drove to the key. It was one of the many physical plays in the game. But Dragic wasn’t impressed by the call.
“Of course it was a charge. If he hit me with the elbow first then it’s a charge. But what should I say? This season every time I get the foul. I lost two teeth, get stitches and the call’s on me,” he said. “I don’t know if the referees were there watching the game or not, I didn’t even want to talk to them because it was going to get only worse.”
Dwane Casey had wanted a more physical effort from his team and in Game 2, the Raptors delivered. Jonas Valanciunas went at Hassan Whiteside in the paint (though Whiteside finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds), DeMarre Carroll had a strong two-way game with 12 first-half points and three steals, and DeRozan tried to get his hands into passing lanes throughout the first half. The roughness peaked late in the second, when DeRozan drove on Goran Dragic, drawing a blocking foul on the Heat point guard. DeRozan’s elbow caught him in the chin and opened up a wound, in addition to sticking him with his third foul.
“He’s a man-child down there,” DeMarre Carroll said of Valanciunas, who scored 11 of his 15 points and grabbed seven of his 12 rebounds in the fourth quarter and OT. “I told Jonas, if I can just get him to play as hard as he [does] on offence on defence, we’ll win this whole series.”
He’s a big reason why they were able to pull out their first-round series win. Two years ago around this time, Valanciunas lamented his poor performance in a Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, it was one of the worst of his career. He had said he didn’t sleep much, wasn’t in the right headspace and, as a result, he learned a valuable lesson on preparing for big games.
Now, most would argue he’s been their best player in this playoff run, and they’d have a pretty good case. Through nine games, the Lithuanian centre is averaging 14.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 55 per cent shooting. His most inspired effort came on Thursday, the eve of his 24th birthday.
Once again, DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were having a hard time putting the ball in the bucket, they shot 16-for-46 combined, an ongoing theme here in the post-season. The Raptors’ offence, that scored 29 points on nine assists in the opening quarter, broke down in the second half, where they recorded just one assist. Each possession was uglier than the last and most resulted in a tough, contested shot from one of the team’s guards. Valanciunas was an afterthought, as is often the case late in games, until he took matters into his own hands.
“He did that with us really not running any plays for him,” DeRozan said. “It was just him being hungry, going after the ball a lot of times when shots were going up, him just getting great position, getting his hand on the ball, and it came through big.”
Ignore Jonas Valanciunas for most of four quarters and then look to him to help win the game?
Shoot just 14-of-26 from the free-throw line and win? Scare up 20 turnovers, including 15 steals, but allow Miami to shoot 51.4 per cent from the floor for four quarters?
Sounds like a plan.
Just don’t expect these guys to play a “normal” game. It’s not their thing. They’re the kind of team that likes heading into unfamiliar places in the dark without a wallet, cellphone or directions just to see if they can figure how to get back.
They pulled it off again Thursday night. If they ever do things the easy way, they’ll let you know.
“It’s been ugly, it’s been ugly,” said DeMar DeRozan of his club’s 5-4 run in the playoffs with perhaps one game that they might define as well-played. “I mean, when we do, I’m pretty sure you’ll know.”
“If we do,” said Lowry.
DeRozan: “It’s a grind, man, honestly. We know nothing was going to be pretty; nothing was going to come out pretty. As long as we can come out with a W, it really don’t matter how we play. It’s going to come.”
But for Lowry, these were baby steps after all the frustration and the noise — important steps — a new beginning because he was better than he’s been. Still not good enough. Still not all-star. Still not Kyle Lowry.
His shooting didn’t really came back, but his scoring did. That, by itself, is a strange distinction. Lowry was 7-for-22 from the field, another sub-par shooting night of 31.8%, but he had a spark and a confidence that was lacking in Game 1.
Lowry ended up with 18 points, more than anyone on the Heat except Goran Dragic, and he made some key shots in the fourth quarter that brought the Raptors back for a 96-92 overtime win over Miami. Two games in the series. Two games in overtime. Not much pretty to look at.
The good Lowry one minute, the not-so-good Lowry in another. The urgent Lowry at times and the lethargic Lowry with 10.5 seconds to go in a game all tied up and he almost walked the ball up court and took a shot that had no chance of succeeding that pushed the game to overtime.
One night, an unlikely shot by Lowry sent the game to overtime.
Another night, with a chance to win it, Lowry took an unexplainable shot.
Two games. One win each. And neither team looking like much of a threat to concern the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors have now played nine games in the playoffs, won five of them, and have played maybe one complete game. One quarter they play tough defence, one quarter they don’t. One quarter they try and move the ball. The next quarter, they’re standing still and not moving the ball.
The Raptors have been almost a mirror of their best players — in, out, erratic, hot, making it all too difficult on themselves. Sometimes not thinking much. There’s not much reason to believe the Raptors can win this series, not with their best players not exhibiting any kind of knockout punch.
Carroll, the Raptors’ top wing defender — and in their Game 2 win at the Air Canada Centre, the game’s highest scorer with 21 points — played a key part in making Wade and the Heat’s night a difficult one. He had four steals and five rebounds, helping the Raptors along in evening up their Eastern Conference semifinal at 1-1.
Miami committed 11 first-quarter turnovers and coughed up the ball 21 times, costing them 24 points.
“He was the saviour tonight, offensively,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said of Carroll. “Twenty-one points from him and his play was huge. DeMarre was huge.
“Some of those shots he made in transition and his attacking the basket were huge for us.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said that his team’s 21 turnovers did them in.
“Anytime you spot a good team like this roughly 20 extra possessions . . . that’s going to be tough to overcome. We had our chances,” he said. “I felt like we were starting to take control of the game in the fourth quarter, then our inability to contain the basketball after the initial action, that led to some drives, offensive rebounds, free-throw rebounds that was probably the biggest difference.”
Thanks to one big Lithuanian dude, the Raptors shed some ugly offense and got the Game 2 win over Miami, 96-92 in overtime. I’m joined by Joshua Priemski, managing editor of At The Hive (the Hornets ying to our Raptors yang) to discuss that dude Jonas Valanciunas, the Heat turnover party, more Kyle Lowry analysis, and some deep thoughts on this Miami team.
It’s comical, confusing and downright criminal that Valanciunas doesn’t get the ball more often. Valanciunas had nine shot attempts all night, making seven of them. He might have had four plays run for him.
This with DeMar DeRozan again channeling the worst of Kobe Bryant, firing up poor shot after poor shot, finishing 9-of-24 from the field and 2-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry found his shot when he needed it, but didn’t find Valanciunas anywhere close to enough. The rare times the two of them ran pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops, good things happened.
Time after time, the Raptors forced up tough jump shots into multiple coverage. This when Valanciunas had proven Hassan Whiteside or any other Heat player had no answer for him.
That was the case early in Game 1 as well, before Valanciunas was ignored.
It’s a huge flaw, arguably a fatal one with this team.
Toronto had nine assists in the first quarter and looked great, but had only two more in the next two periods. How does that happen?
There will likely come a day when Valanciunas is a featured player, even as the NBA goes away from traditional big men in the middle and it might come with DeRozan playing in another city.
Or, they might just keep going with this ill-fated approach.
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“Well, we had an opportunity, man,” Wade said. “First, that’s all you want. You want an opportunity to win on the road. You want to put yourself in great position. And we did that. Seven point lead going down the stretch, 77-70, you want to lock in right there. But they got back and took a one-point lead so fast, which was tough. But we had opportunities. I didn’t think overtime, we did a good job —”
This is where he stopped to swat.
“This mosquito is all on me,” he said.
Because the Heat, in this game, allowed the opponent to buzz around too long. And now, as a result, it may become an annoyance in this series.
What was supposed to be a putaway chance — grabbing a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead in the series before heading back for two games in South Florida — instead became the giveaway game, as Miami committed an unbelievable 11 turnovers in the first quarter alone, four from Wade and three from Goran Dragic, who was otherwise at his feisty best.
Where the Game was lost for the Heat
There were two actually. The first is when Hassan Whiteside refused to be physical with Jonas Valanciunas. JV got offensive rebounds, tip ins, loose balls, etc. Whiteside couldn’t do a thing, and it was JV’s presence that fueled much of that 14-3 run that sent the game to overtime. Miami had control and lost it because of this matchup.
Secondly, overtime. The Heat went 4:27 without scoring. That’s not going to give you any chance, it doesn’t matter who you are playing. Joe Johnson failed on his iso’s in OT and Dragic wasn’t used. The Heat couldn’t get it done.
Miami has to get their turnovers under control, fix the JV issue. Find a new way to incorporate Justise Winslow into something productive on offense. Lots of things to work for the Heat.
The series is now tied 1-1.
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The turnovers were a significant part of the story, with the Heat committing 21 to 10 for the Raptors.
“Obviously it’s very competitive,” Spoelstra said, “but you’re spotting a good team like this 20 extra possessions.
“Our spacing has to be better, guys moving into spots so the ball can see energy.”
What kept the Heat afloat was Toronto’s 14-of-26 foul shooting.
With the victory, the Raptors forced a Game 5 next Wednesday at Air Canada Centre, with a Pearl Jam concert scheduled for the building that night pushed back by one day.
Unlike the Heat’s Game 1 overtime victory, this time it was the Raptors who set the tone in overtime, pushing to a 92-86 lead on baskets from DeRozan and Valanciunas, and then a pair of free throws from Carroll.
A Deng dunk with 23.5 seconds left got the Heat on the board in the extra period, but still left them down 92-88. A pair of Corey Joseph free throws extended the Raptors’ lead to 94-88 with 22.1 ticks left, with time eventually running out on the Heat on a night they held a seven-point fourth-quarter lead after overcoming an earlier 14-point deficit.
“The big plays, they were making them,” Spoelstra said. “They stayed with it.”
Whiteside has to be better
Hassan Whiteside simply has to be better for the Heat to win this series. He was beaten by Jonas Valanciunas, who grabbed six offensive rebounds, too much, and wasn’t in position to box out against or contest his second chance put backs. All in all, Whiteside (13 points on seven shots and 13 rebounds) and Valanciunas (15 points on nine shots and 12 rebounds) played to a draw.
The problem was his late game defense against Lowry. On back-to-back plays the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll with Lowry and Valancuinas. Lowry got to the same spot at the elbow without Whiteside closing out both times, scoring both times and helping the Raptors take the lead late in the fourth quarter. Dragic, who needed the help defense against Lowry, yelled at Whiteside both times for the same mistake. Erik Spoelstra promptly took him out for Udonis Haslem for the final defensive possession of regulation.
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“I think once we do go into him he’s done a decent job, but (Miami’s Hassan) Whiteside is a force down there and they’re doing a good job digging, pushing him off his sweet spot,” Casey said of Valanciunas. “We can find more touches for him down there, but I think he’s doing a heck of a job, screening, rolling.”
Toronto scored the first six points of the overtime — a contrast to the 8-0 run the Heat went on to start overtime on Tuesday — and played wonderful defence that held the Heat scoreless until Luol Deng had a dunk with 23.5 seconds left.
After two Miami baskets and free throws from Cory Joseph and DeRozan made it a three-point game with 4.9 seconds left, Lowry iced it at the free-throw line by splitting two shots.
Lowry and DeRozan were a combined 16-for-46 from the field, but each made big plays in the dying minutes as Toronto came back from seven points down with six minutes to go.
“There are other ways to win other than shooting the basketball and I thought Kyle contributed to that, DeMar contributed to that,” Casey said.
“I’m more concerned about our free throws. We missed 12 free throws, which is probably more concerning than some of the jump shots.”
Dwane Casey admits he never knows: Which Terrence Ross will show up on any given night, playoffs or regular season?
The invisible Terrence had become something of an unfortunate fixture the past few years. There is no questioning his talent: There is questioning what he seems to get out of it. But not in the past two games. Not in the second round of the playoffs, a new place for so many Raptors.
Ross scored 19 points in a Game 1 loss to Miami and came back with a certain confidence in Game 2. Ross hit three early shots, played tougher defence than he’s known for and provided a legitimate option for a Raptors offence in need of an option.
“He’s more decisive with his shot,” said Casey, talking about the Ross difference. Ross had eight points in 13 first-half minutes, hitting on half his shots. An open three he seemed to hit in the fourth quarter was called back on an offensive foul by Jonas Valanciunas. He ended the game with 10 points.
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Though it was nervy, it can’t really be said that Toronto’s first-round series with Indiana was eventful. The Pacers won one night. The Raptors won the next. Paul George was predictably great. Everyone else was not.
“I think we just like drama for some reason,” DeMar DeRozan said Thursday.
For most of his time here, he’d have meant Hamlet. On Thursday, it turned into Henry V – a heavy emphasis on war.
The languid DeRozan was the unlikely main protagonist. At one point, he yanked hard on the arm of a leaping Hassan Whiteside, driving the Miami centre awkwardly to the ground.
In the game’s replay moment, he drove a hard elbow into the chin of Goran Dragic as he powered to the net. The blow was so violent it drove the Slovenian’s teeth through his lower lip, causing a jagged wound and necessitating eight stitches. As an added bonus, Dragic took the foul.
While he stalked off the court, raging, DeRozan looked disinterestedly the other way.
If the Raptors want to play a normal game, it might mean redistributing some of the offensive load to Valanciunas, who appears ready to take on that responsibility. But coach Dwane Casey, who has leaned on his backcourt despite its struggles in the playoffs, seems resigned to go with what got him here.
“We can find more touches for him down there,” Casey said. “He’s doing a heck of a job as it is. Screening, rolling, making plays. It’s probably what he’s going to get.”
The advantage of using Valanciunas is multifold. He can get Hassan Whiteside — who has disrupted and discouraged the Raptors from attacking the rim all series — into early foul trouble. When the Heat have Amar’e Stoudemire or Udonis Haslem on the floor instead, it creates a low-post advantage for Toronto and opens up driving lanes for its perimeter players.
Carroll — who scored a team-high 21 points in 39 minutes Thursday — called Valanciunas a man-child in the low post.
“We have to try to get him the ball more,” Carroll said. “Every time he gets it, he’s scoring. His time will come. We just need him to keep playing big.”
Then Carroll summed up the Raptors’ approach to winning in these playoffs: “A lot of guys are contributing. That’s what we have to do. If we think we can do it individually, we’re not going to win the game.”
Dwane Casey’s decision to ride Valanciunas until the bitter end might have been what ultimately swung the game Toronto’s way. Biyombo was brutal in 14 minutes. Valanciunas shone in his 38 – 16 of which came in the final 17 minutes of action. Miami drivers, normally used to watching Whiteside end the scoring dreams of opponents, were repeatedly met by Valanciunas and his gargantuan figure. He scored 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds (six of which came on the offensive glass) and even dished a pair of assists on the night, but his rim protection in overtime was what lifted the Raptors to the series-tying win.
There are a million things to scrutinize about how the Raptors played on Thursday – from Lowry and DeRozan’s combined 16-of-46, to the persistent ball-stopping, to Carroll’s uneven defense despite leading the team with 21 critical points. But the Raptors won ugly, and did so on the back of their gigantic playoff hero.
“We can harp on the negatives and beat that drum, beat it to death, but we’re finding other ways to win and that’s very encouraging,” said Casey.
He’s not wrong. Series tied 1-1, and we’re off to South Beach.
The sole reason that the defence isn’t lower is because of the turnovers. While Miami shot 49 per cent from the field and 36 per cent from 3, the Raptors were able to force 21 turnovers and swipe the ball 15 times. The anticipation of the passing lanes was great and it’s what kept the Raptors in the game, ultimately positioning them to win. If there’s one take away from the defence in this game, it’s that Miami did a careless job at passing the ball. Toronto only had 1 block, compared to the Heat’s 7. To make matters worse, Hassan Whiteside had 3 blocks on his own. The defence, like the offence, left a lot to be desired.
The Raptors made it work for one night, though, because Valanciunas was just that good. He won the matchup with Hassan Whiteside and attacked every offensive rebound and loose ball within his reach. He managed to pull in six offensive boards, but he had to get his hands on at least six more to extend plays for his team.
What was most impressive about Valanciunas’s night was that he managed to effect change from the periphery of Toronto’s offense. He connected on 7 of 9 field goals but rarely received a post-up. He formed a deadly screen-and-roll duo with Lowry, but it was seldom used and he wasn’t called on enough down the stretch, when Toronto took a couple ill-advised shots and allowed Miami to push the game to overtime on a Goran Dragic three-pointer.
Valanciunas didn’t show us anything we hadn’t seen. He’s been a great rebounder with boundless energy. The most valuable piece of information his performance could offer Toronto is the realization that there is another way to win. Lowry and DeRozan are the focal points of the franchise, but should the Raptors really keep shoveling them the ball for another 16-of-46 shooting night?
Lowry’s struggles have been well documented because he’s been willing to take on every question and put his ego to the side. But DeRozan’s struggles are just as troubling. While Lowry gets in his own head and starts to pass up shots, DeRozan answers bad shooting nights with more aggressive drives and forced midrange looks.
This approach usually lands him at the free-throw line, which serves as a safe haven for volume shooters. That was not the case Thursday night, as he hit only 2-of-8 and kept Miami alive late with misses.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore that the Raptors and Heat fall far behind their competitors in terms of quality of play. Anyone extolling this series’ virtues of “throwback basketball” or “defensive-mindedness” just isn’t watching closely enough. It’s not extreme physicality or dominant defense that’s led to consistently contested shots and one-pass possessions, but the inability of Toronto and Miami to crease the paint, move the floor, and resist settling for good attempts when great ones could be produced.
None of this should be surprising. Lowry and DeRozan lead an offense that ranked last in assist percentage during the regular season. Wade has too often resorted to over-dribbling throughout his Hall-of-Fame career, and Dragic still hasn’t quite assimilated to the extent it’s necessary for the influence of his attacking gifts to be unleashed. Ross and Valanciunas and Johnson and Whiteside aren’t exactly playmakers, either.
Nobody expects the winner of this series to go anywhere meaningful. The Cleveland Cavaliers were prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites when the postseason began and have only strengthened their vise grip on that status in the interim. Struggles of the Raptors and Heat haven’t really changed anything, basically.
Well, except for league-wide trends toward the offensive ethos that’s come to define basketball’s current era. Fortunately for all of us, though, the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs have lived to play, too – and they will be the teams representing this game on its biggest stage come June.
The Heat slowed down the pace and used Toronto’s aggressive switching defense to their advantage: consistently using guard/wing screen combinations to get favorable match-ups along the perimeter. Goran Dragic, as the primary ball-handler, benefited most from Toronto’s switching. Dragic consistently got to where he wanted to on the court with slower defenders on him and converted the opportunities, shooting 8-of-12 from the field for 20 points.
Outside of Dragic, the Heat were fairly unremarkable offensively. Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson each contributed with 17 points on below-average efficiency, and Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside scored a combined 25 points on 23 possessions. Defensively, the Heat took advantage of the shooting woes of Lowry and DeRozan by packing the paint and forcing them into a bunch of lower-percentage shots off isolation action.
With Lowry’s and DeRozan’s struggles spilling into Game 2, the Raptors turned to an unlikely source for some offense. Terrence Ross, coming off the bench, was one of the few Raptors who could create any space in the second and third quarters of the game. Ross took advantage of the Heat going over screens and showed off some ball-handling ability to create space for in-rhythm jumpers:
Aside from banking on one or both of DeRozan and Lowry regaining their mojos, the Raptors only have so many options at their disposal.
Head coach Dwane Casey tried combating the Heat’s spacey lineups with a different starting five, swapping out Patrick Patterson for Powell while shifting Carroll to the 4 spot. That group was dead even in 16 minutes of action but never established any offensive traction.
Miami, like Indiana, is content to let Valanciunas fire up jumpers or attack the rim as it polices the three-point line. Toronto’s starting five combined for a 1-of-7 outside showing during its time on the court, and the Raptors, one of the sweetest shooting squads in the regular season, finished 5-of-21 from long range overall.
Increasing Joseph’s workload looms as an especially intriguing Hail Mary. Giving him some of DeRozan and Lowry’s minutes offers the Raptors a more efficient shot-maker to run the offense without sacrificing anything on the defensive end.
Cutting the playing time of two All-Stars does, of course, run the risk of being counterproductive. The last thing Casey wants to do is further shake the confidence of Toronto’s two most important players. The DeRozan-Joseph pairing has proved to be offensive and defensive suicide anyway.
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