The most frustrating part of the Jonas Valanciunas Experience over the last five years has not been the talent level. It has not been the production. It has not been the defense, or his usage patterns, or even the unending, circular arguments about his value and role. The most frustrating part has been that each of these points of contention only exist fleetingly, with Valanciunas able to oscillate seamlessly between potential franchise cornerstone and potential bench scoring relic, making each and every possible stop between those two points.
That Valanciunas can show exactly why those who support him demand he be used more and why the competing group wants to unload him, essentially in the same breath, cuts to the primary issue. At age 24, Valanciunas very much is who he is in terms of overall production, and in terms of his strengths and weaknesses, but there are nights, or even weeks, in which his place on the team can easily be called into question. That goes for the good and the bad – he sometimes appears to command a reshaping of the offense to showcase his offense, or to request a more limited role suitable to his occasional defensive struggles.
With Kyle Lowry hitting the shelf, Valanciunas was presented a major opportunity to re-assert his value to the Toronto Raptors at the offensive end of the floor. The Raptors would need scoring, and DeMar DeRozan was unlikely to be able to carry the load on his own. But Lowry’s injury coincided with the acquisition of Serge Ibaka, a more natural fit for what the Raptors would prefer to do defensively at the center position. Valanciunas’ offense was fine in the team’s first six games out of the All-Star break, but his defense was shaky, and the Lithuanian was rendered persona non grata in important moments, including the entirety of each fourth quarter. It was disappointing, and a stretch of three games in four nights presented yet another renewed opportunity: The Raptors would draw Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, and Hassan Whiteside in a span of 96 hours, and Valanciunas would be needed.
The nice underlying point in the discussion about Valanciunas’ play is that his talent never went anywhere. He was still an elite rebounder, a quality dive man, and at least a decent option on the block. He’s stepped up in playoff series, and swung regular season games. The run of physical centers opposite him plays to his preferred modus operandi, and there was plenty of room for optimism that Valanciunas could give the Raptors what they were sure to need, especially with DeMarre Carroll joining Lowry on the shelf and the New Orleans Pelicans employing a handful of quality DeRozan defenders to make life difficult for the team’s remaining star.
Things didn’t look great early on. The Pelicans got out to an 8-0 lead, Valanciunas got blocked and missed a layup, and Ibaka picked up a pair of early fouls, putting an even greater onus on Valanciunas. What unfolded from there should renew faith that Valanciunas has a place on this team, and that his demise – one that reportedly came in a six-game stretch in which he still shot very well while on the court – was overstated.
Valanciunas was, in a word, terrific. To expand, he was exactly what the Raptors have long hoped he could be, either alongside the team’s two pillars or as a support piece with just one. Not only did Valanciunas answer the physical challenge that Cousins presents inside, he was aggressive on the glass and used his physicality well to establish himself as a problem around the floor. He flashed his range as a trailer or on the short-roll, and his decisiveness when diving made him a nice target for DeRozan and Cory Joseph, both of whom did a much better job than they have of late in finding Valanciunas. The team’s additional usage of some motion sets got Valanciunas more improvised post touches, too. It was a collective effort to put Valanciunas in more situations to succeed, and the 7-footer responded by doing the same for himself, and rewarding his teammates at both ends.
All told, Valanciunas scored a team-high 25 points with a game-high 13 rebounds, playing to a plus-7 mark on the night. More telling than any number, head coach Dwane Casey felt comfortable going back to Valanciunas in the fourth, something that’s been firmly off the table of late. Over the 8:33 he played in the final frame (a little at the start and a re-substitution later), he scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds, missing but a single free throw. He was beyond solid, and he provided the Raptors with the type of performance that, on paper, they’ll be counting on from him regularly with Lowry out (and maybe even with Lowry, depending on their first-round playoff opponent).
The absence of Anthony Davis made the Raptors’ defensive efforts a little easier, to be sure. Davis suffered a wrist contusion when he banged his arm on the rim in the first half, and his night was over at the midway point. That left Cousins and Jrue Holiday to try to carry a thinned-out Pelicans roster asking for big buckets from Steezus to victory, and to their credit, New Orleans’ defensive intensity kept things close. They threw a lot of attention at DeRozan, forcing him into a facilitating role he embraced intelligently. They slowed the pace down, something the Raptors have actually been embracing even more than usual without Lowry. The Raptors also couldn’t get out of their own way, missing nine free-throw attempts, and they had some bad luck like a made Ibaka three being erased by a foul on the floor a split-second beforehand.
It probably shouldn’t have been as close as it was late, with the Raptors letting an early third-quarter burst dissipate as the Pelicans chipped back away against bench-heavy units. Casey had to momentarily search, getting a quick spark from Fred VanVleet and ultimately leaning heavily on DeRozan and P.J. Tucker. (Tucker, by the way, was once again a nice contributor defensively, even bodying up Davis for a short stretch. His intensity and attention to detail on defense rarely wane, and it’s clearly rubbing off on those around him.) A 10-point lead disappeared, momentarily terrifying given it had come following a 10-point deficit, and with Cousins and a host of one-time Raptor killers littering the floor.
In the end, they rediscovered their footing and closed out, thanks in no small part to Valanciunas. That’s encouraging, especially with the opponents on deck.
It’s easy to look at a narrow victory against a Davis-less Pelicans team and cringe at the method, but doing so would kind of ignore the situation the Raptors are in right now. They were down Lowry and Carroll, they were on the road, and they were against a team that matches up well to slow their offense down. In general, the Raptors just aren’t built to win pretty without one of their stars, and so it’s unlikely they’re going to be putting up the type of edge-of-your-seat scoring-fests that popped up all over the start of the year.
The Raptors won like the Raptors are currently built to win. Short a heroic DeRozan outing, someone needed to step up, and Valanciunas did so decisively. Short their usual offensive firepower, they needed to move the ball better, and surprisingly, they did (they totaled 21 assists on 36 field goals, a nice mark for this club). Most importantly, they identified an opponent even more thin on offense and locked down to suffocate them, holding New Orleans to just 13 free-throw attempts, forcing 14 turnovers, and limiting New Orleans to 97.5 points per-100 possessions, the Raptors’ best defensive mark since before the All-Star break.
They’re doing what they need to do to survive, and it’s tough to ask for more from them night-to-night right now, even if there are still legitimate concerns worth focusing on. To paraphrase Bukowski, “Beauty is nothing. Beauty won’t stay. You don’t know how lucky you are to be ugly, because if you can still win, you know it’s for something else.”