The ingredients of a title contender

9 mins read
Matt Azevedo/MattAzevedo.com

Photo by MattAzevedo.com

Raptors 905 have the best record in the NBA D-League. They stand at 32-11, 2.5 games ahead of both the Los Angeles D-Fenders and Oklahoma City Blue. They’ve won the way contenders do, from blowouts and buzzer-beaters to second-half rallies and ugly grind-it-outs. They’ve won 16 games at home, and 16 on the road. They are in the top five for both offensive and defensive efficiency, and have a net rating of +8.0, 3.2 points higher than the second-best team.

This past Saturday, they clinched the first of what they hope will be many playoff berths.

For those of you wondering, the four division winners of each conference, along with the two best remaining records (wildcards) in each conference advance to the playoffs. The 905 are on the verge of clinching their first Central Division title (I know, why not the Atlantic?), and must win three best-of-three series to win the title. The D-League favours upsets (and wants to limit travel), so they grant the wildcard home-court advantage for the first game, before the division winner hosts the second, and third if necessary. That means just six wins is all it takes, but as few as two losses could end a storybook season.

While the 905 have steadily cemented themselves as the best team in the Eastern Conference, it’s only after their recent five-game West Coast swing that they earned talk as potential favourites. Having already defeated the Blue at home back in December, the 905 convincingly defeated the D-Fenders 111-104 on the road. Eight of the nine players that saw the floor scored in double-figures; Bruno Caboclo, Antwaine Wiggins, and Edy Tavares all tied for high-scoring honours with 16 each. It was a statement game.

That they’ve elevated themselves to this point in the second year of their existence is a testament to not only the Raptors organization, but a culture that began with Dwane Casey pounding the rock for the parent club, passing that attitude on to Jesse Mermuys for the 905’s inaugural season, and Mermuys relaying that on to current head coach Jerry Stackhouse.

Mermuys inherited a roster that had nowhere near the depth of this year; only Caboclo, Axel Toupane, John Jordan, and E.J. Singler remain (and not a single one of those players spent the entire season with the 905 last year), but his job was to plant the seeds, and moisten the surface for germination (or g-evelopment, if you prefer). Maintaining a cool head and an open door for players to seek help in any way, Mermuys started to bear the fruits of his labour with seven wins in his final eight games to finish 23-27. These efforts were rewarded with an assistant coaching position with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Stackhouse and his staff earned an All-Star appearance this season, and he must have felt right at home finding everyone minutes there, as he’s managed the 905 in much the same vein. In all, 16 different players have started for the 905 this season, and a fair share have received DNP-CDs so Stackhouse can get a look at someone else. It’s democratic on the whole, and it’s a meritocracy when it matters.

That’s not to say these players haven’t had their one shining moment, or two. Brady Heslip just matched a season-high with 33 points this past Monday, knocking down eight 3-pointers along the way. He leads the D-League in 3-point makes and made a season-high 10 triples in their final game before Christmas. His shooting has been so lights-out that even Jack Armstrong was intrigued by how he could help the Raptors outside shooting right now.

The team’s best player, Toupane, was called up on a 10-day contract to the Milwaukee Bucks recently, and scored a season-high 32 against the Canton Charge; two short of his career-high. He possesses arguably the best Eurostep in the D-League, accelerating and decelerating to perfection. C.J. Leslie has flirted with triple-doubles multiple times this season, and has had a 30-point game, a 16-rebound game, and a seven-assist game this season. He loves mixing it up inside, and has worked an excellent two-man game alongside Tavares in the front court when starting. (He played well enough to necessitate the 905 trading Jarrod Uthoff to free up minutes.)

Tavares has been the 905’s main man in the middle, and has protected the paint while showcasing a feathery touch on the other end like few 7’2”, 260 lbs. players could. Through 43 games, he has blocked at least three shots on 18 occasions, including a season-high seven against the Charge. The Cape Verde native will have a lot to say as to whether or not the 905 finish as champions, assuming nobody calls him up during the stretch run.

Guys like Jordan, Singler, Antwaine Wiggins, Will Sheehey, and Yanick Moreira don’t receive as much fan fare, but have all slotted in to their roles and excelled at various points in the season.

Big numbers for Bruno? Not quite, but forward strides have been made nonetheless. A career-high seven blocks in late November is in some ways a reflection of a new-found willingness to put himself out there. He’s rocked cornrows, a lion tattoo across his chest, and a Snapchat account that suggests he’s become the team’s designated prankster.

On the court, he has shown excellent awareness defensively. I might even go as far as saying his defence (outside of needing to get stronger) is NBA ready. He has shown a good understanding of when to tag or help, and when to stay home. His length is always an issue offences have to contend with, and as mentioned previously, he’s offering better rim protection than last season. While he hasn’t shot the ball as well as last season, he still allows the 905 to space the floor effectively enough for Heslip outside and Tavares inside to operate.

The Brazilian has taken his fair share of criticism for not putting up gaudy numbers, but this is a team that predicates itself on attitude first. Everyone roots for each other, everyone helps each other, and perhaps most importantly, everyone plays. They’re more Detroit Pistons than Golden State Warriors, maintaining a balanced attack on one end, and a stifling defence on the other.

The 905’s overall success has garnered All-Star appearances, promotions, and some attention as well. They’ve entered the home stretch, where five of their final seven regular season games will be played away from the Hershey Centre, but there’s little on the line beyond locking up home-court throughout the playoffs (Stackhouse said Monday he’ll rest some players over the next couple of weeks).

Despite residing in Mississauga, it is ironic that once the playoffs begin, their magic number will be 6ix.

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