Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com
In just their second season of existence, Raptors 905 are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals. For as large an accomplishment as this is, it’s almost an understatement. The 905 finished the 2016-17 season with the best record in the entire D-League and the second-best D-League record of all time. Naturally, then, they entered the playoffs as a favorite, at least to come out of the Eastern Conference. Not even losing Axel Toupane to a call-up mid-series could slow them in the first round, as they swept the Canton Charge 2-0 to win their first ever playoff series.
Things will get tougher from here. The D-League playoffs bring with it some threats, and unlike the NBA counterpart, there’s far less assurance that the best team will move on if not properly dialed in. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse has quickly earned a reputation for having his charges permanently locked in, and with a week off between series, it’s a safe bet that Stackhouse and staff had the 905 working hard to make up for the loss of not only Toupane, but Edy Tavares, as well.
— NBA D-League (@nbadleague) April 13, 2017
The goal here is a championship. Standing in the way of the 905 next are the Maine Red Claws, the D-League affiliate of the Boston Celtics. Here’s a look at how the series sets up.
The Format: In an interesting D-League wrinkle, the team with home-court advantage hits the road for Game 1 of each series before returning home for Games 2 and 3. With a best-of-three format, the D-League’s aim is to minimize travel, and that presents an unusual playoff format that has players and coaches a little split. The 905, with the best road record in D-League history (21-4), are supremely confident heading into another team’s arena and taking a game. If they do, they’ve got two chances to close out at home. Lost that first game, though, and suddenly you find yourself desperate, backs against the wall before you’ve even enjoyed the spoils of your home-court advantage.
The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!): The 905 open on the road Wednesday before returning home for games Saturday and, if necessary, next Tuesday.
Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Maine, Sunday, April 16, 5 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 2: Maine @ Raptors 905, Wednesday, April 19, 7 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Maine @ Raptors 905, Thursday, April 20, 7 p.m., Facebook Live
* – if necessary
Raptors Republic readers can use the promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on playoff tickets (if this link doesn’t work at any point, the code should still work at check out).
Season Series: The 905 and Red Claws met four times this season, with the road team taking each game. Here’s a brief look back at each outcome:
- Nov. 26 (Mississauga): 100-91 loss. Jakob Poeltl grabs 15 rebounds in his first assignment. Recap.
- Dec. 4 (Maine): 102-89 win. C.J. Leslie grabs 16 rebounds and dishes seven assists. Recap.
- Dec. 29 (Mississauga): 80-69 loss. Edy Tavares has a 15-11 double-double. Recap.
- Jan. 12 (Maine): 110-94 win. Abdel Nader goes off for 29 with five dimes. Recap.
The Tale of the Tape: The 905 nearly drew Fort Wayne here, which probably would have been a more difficult series in their post-Tavares reality. Maine was fairly mediocre during the course of the season and nearly choked away Game 3 after coughing up a huge lead in Game 2, but they’re a better team today than their numbers suggest thanks in part to the addition of Guerschon Yabusele. The 905 remain one of the league’s best teams by season-long metrics, but the reality is, they’ve lost two of their best overall players and their best two defensive players, full stop, plus they’re missing important rotation piece Will Sheehey. Basically, the 905 are going to have to get a bit grimy and lean on their depth here, even if they appear to have an edge in a lot of areas.
NBA Assignees: There’s going to be a fair amount of NBA content in this series, which should make for a more interesting matchup. NBA teams have the option to assign players to the D-League for the postseason, and there are good arguments in favor of doing so, even if it does take some opportunity away from full-time D-Leaguers or limit the NBA side early in the postseason. For the 905, it’s been a steady up-and-down of with six different assignees this year, while the Red Claws have seen somewhat less involvement. While the 905 have gotten 68 games from NBA players, the Red Claws had just 44. The Red Claws have had just as much success in terms of call-ups, though, graduating Marcus Georges-Hunt and Ryan Kelly to the nBA. For this series, each team figures to have two assignees, though the Raptors could send a third.
Demetrius Jackson, Celtics assignee: The Celtics’ second-round pick has only played 17 NBA minutes thanks to the team’s depth at the position, but the reasons they’re high on the Notre Dame product remain fairly clear. In 32 games, he’s averaged 14.8 points, six assists, and 1.3 steals, and while he hasn’t exactly shot the lights out or shown NBA range (despite an eager willingness to try). The Red Claws have actually been a shade better without him on the floor, but there’s probably some noise there. He’ll be a nice defensive foil for Brady Heslip while challenging him at the other end.
Jordan Mickey, Celtics assignee: The better of the two assignees, Mickey’s probably ready to graduate from the D-League. It’s his second season with significant time down there, and he’s proven too good for this level. In 12 games this year, he averaged 20.8 points on 51.5-percent shooting, knocked down 43.8 percent of a decent volume of threes, and averaged 8.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. He’s among the best rim protectors in the postseason and will be lurking any time the 905 drive. He also figures to be a major factor on the glass with Tavares out.
Bruno Caboclo, Raptors assignee: Caboclo is getting his first taste of real postseason experience since his days in Brazil, a nice learning experience. The 21-year-old is yet to really refine himself as a weapon at the offensive end of the floor, but he showed on Wednesday night that he’s making some progress. He’s also shooting 33.1 percent on 4.6 threes per-game with the 905, so Maine will at least have to be aware of his quick trigger. Defensively, Caboclo has made great progress. With a stronger build and improved awareness, Caboclo’s become a plus team defender and a quality check on the perimeter. He’s averaging more than a block and steal, and he’s gotten much better in help-and-recover scenarios and identifying opportunities to help the helper. He didn’t see a ton of time in the 905’s close-out game against Canton, but he should be a big factor in the frontcourt rotation with Tavares gone.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors assignee: Siakam has been dominant whenever he’s been assigned. After spending the first half of the season starting for a 50-win NBA team, perhaps that’s not surprising. But Siakam also spent a long stretch on the bench without much D-League timer, and so it’s been encouraging to see him hit the ground running as a two-way force at this level. In five games, he averaged a team-high 18.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks, and he’s even hit 6-of-12 from long-range. It was a small sample of time, but he led a very good 905 team in PER, and the 905 outscored opponents by a team-best 24.8 points per-100 possessions with him on the floor. He was less impressive in two playoff games but had a fine showing with the parent club on Wednesday and should bounce back this weekend.
Fred VanVleet, not assigned: It’s unclear if VanVleet will be assigned now that Kyle Lowry is healthy, or if the Raptors will want to keep 13 healthy bodies on the playoff roster. Either would be justified, but the 905 getting VanVleet would allow them to move Heslip off the ball some, helping cover up for the losses of Toupane and Sheehey. In 16 games on assisgnment, VanVleet was incredibly steady, averaging 16.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.5 steals while hitting 40.7 percent of his threes.
Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: The Dancing Bear! The best shooter outside the NBA! Three players called up during the playoffs between the two teams! There is – or at least was – a ton of NBA-caliber talent here not on rosters.
Guerschon Yabusele, Red Claws: A first-round pick of the Celtics, “French Draymond” aka The Dancing Bear, the impetus for #YabuHive, is a treat to watch. He came over late in the year and only got into two regular season games with Maine, quickly dropping a 17-and-9 and then a 20-and-11. His three-game playoff series started out shaky but he quickly bounced back despite some occasional foul trouble, averaging 16.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting in the series while chipping in 6.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists. A heady player with a knack for smart cuts and nifty passes, Yabusele stands out for more than just his 260-pound frame.
Jalen Jones and Abdel Nader, Red Claws: I’m putting these two together in honor of D-League guru Chris Reichert calling them a “playmaking hydra” for the Red Claws. Both are probably deserving of NBA looks this summer, and Jones was getting some late-season sniffs from a few teams. Nader is averaging 21.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while Jones chips in 21, nine, and 2.2, with each hitting a respectable mark from long-range. Yabusele is the player to watch and the assignment players are important, but Maine’s approach at both ends of the floor runs through the forward combo of Jones and Nader.
Marcus Georges-Hunt, Magic: A stalwart of the Red Claws for 45 games this year, Georges-Hunt drew the call-up from the Magic for the final 10 days of the regular season. An All-Star at mid-season, the 23-year-old rookie was averaging 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists for Maine while also knocking down 39.2 percent of his threes. Soaking up 36.4 minutes per-game, MGH is as big a loss for Maine as Axel Toupane is for the 905 (more on him in a second). And like with Toupane, Georges-Hunt isn’t expected to re-join the D-League postseason, even once the NBA season ends. But hey, this is great for him and the entire point of the D-League, and the fact that he’s already gotten into four NBA games is incredible for him.
Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane, Cavaliers/Pelicans: The 905 lost their two best players to call-ups, a major win for the organization but a huge loss for the 905’s title chances. Toupane was the team’s most versatile defensive piece and their go-to scoring option, while Tavares is a legitimate D-League Defensive Player of the Year candidate, their best screen-setter, and the provider of easy points around the rim. With Will Sheehey hurt, the 905 are thin on options to replace Toupane, and Negus Webster-Chan could find himself in the rotation. Tavares’ minutes will fall to Yanick Moreira as the starting center, but this suddenly becomes a massive C.J. Leslie series, too. Leslie has been excellent at times this year but has also been fairly inconsistent, and they’ll need him at his absolute best here.
Brady Heslip, 905: Only once in D-League history has a player drained more threes in a season than Heslip did this year. With the ball in his hands more as a point guard and a number of neat pet plays to get him clean looks (elevator doors, swoon), Heslip has a permanent green light and hasn’t been hesitant to use it. He’s hit 41.8 percent of his 9.1 (!) 3-point attempts per-game. His skills as a point guard have improved since the beginning of the season, too, and while Heslip still needs some help at the defensive end, he was able to post the second-best net rating among regulars (plus-14.6). In two playoff games, Heslip came off the bench firing, scoring 36 points and hitting eight threes in 58 minutes. He’ll be the team’s go-to offensive piece now that Toupane’s gone.
Prediction: 905 in 3.
Looking Ahead: Out West, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Oklahoma City Blue open their conference finals series on Thursday. The 905 would visit the winner for Game 1 of the finals before returning home to Mississauga for Games 2 and 3 some time before April 27, if they get past Maine.