Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com
While the parent club Toronto Raptors look to squander a high seed and home-court advantage for the third time in four years, things are moving along much better a little down the Gardiner, where Raptors 905 are two wins from bringing a championship to Mississauga. Despite a road paved by adversity in the form of injuries (Will Sheehey) and call-ups (Axel Toupane, Edy Tavares), the 905 haven’t missed a beat, not only making it to the D-League Finals, but running Canton and Maine off the floor with emphatic 2-0 sweeps to get there. Now, one of the more unlikely sophomore seasons for a team is on the verge of culminating in a championship. Standing in the way are the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who couldn’t pose much starker a contrast in style.
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. Lose 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 Sunday before returning home for games Tuesday and, if necessary, next Thursday.
Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Rio Grande Valley Vipers – Sunday, April 23, 8pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 2: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Tuesday, April 25, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Thursday, April 27, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
* – if necessary
And yes, that deciding Game 3 could potentially overlap with elimination games for the parent club of both teams. Because of course. (Game 2 also overlaps with a potential Maple Leafs Game 7, and Leafs Game 4 did a number on the 905’s attendance in an earlier round, so they may have to “create our own energy,” in the words of Jerry Stackhouse.
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 Vipers met just once this season, with the 905 taking a 104-93 decision at Hershey Centre on Feb. 27. Here’s the recap from that one. C.J. Leslie turned in a really strong performance and the 905 withstood a ridiculous 24-and-15 outing from Kyle Wiltjer.
The Tale of the Tape: The 905 nearly drew Oklahoma City here, which could have turned the finals into some Pat Riley Knicks style of basketball, pitting the league’s two best defensive teams (by a wide margin) against each other. Instead, it’s a tale as old as time, and a tale as new as the Rio-OKC Western Conference Finals: The unstoppable force against the immovable object. We’re talking an elite defense, one within a hair of the best efficiency in the league, one that grinds out games and smothers an opposing offense into submission, up against a supernova of an offense, the best in the league on a per-possession basis, one that ratchets up the pace and is by no means shy about letting shots fly from anywhere despite not being particularly stocked with shooters. How good was the Vipers’ offense? Consider this: They had the league’s second-worst defense and still managed to trail only the 905 in net rating.
There really couldn’t be a better contrast of styles for a heavyweight title fight.
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 Vipers have had even heavier involvement. While the 905 have gotten 72 games from NBA players, the Vipers have had 106. The Vipers have had just as much success in terms of call-ups, too, graduating Gary Payton II and Troy Williams to the NBA. The Vipers will have three assignees here, the 905 two.
Kyle Wiltjer, Rockets assignee: Some CanCon coming at you! The sweet-shooting big man has hit 37.9 percent of almost 10 3-point attempts per-game, with a trigger so quick it might make even Brady Heslip think twice. In 22 games, Wiltjer’s averaged 20.5 points and 6.4 rebounds for Rio, and he’s a big focal point of their offense as a pick-and-pop weapon with Isaiah Taylor. He’s somehow dialed that offense up even more in six playoff games, taking 12.7 (!!) threes per-game and averaging 23.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Pascal Siakam will probably be tasked with Wiltjer out of the gate in games, but it will take a team effort to chase him off the line without conceding the lane to Taylor.
Chinanu Onuaku, Rockets assignee: The second-round pick has had a Bruno Caboclo-like season, spending almost all of it with Rio. In 43 games, he averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks while shooting 62.8 percent from the floor. Rio even had him step out and take a couple of threes! His offensive role in the playoffs has basically consisted of entirely offensive rebounds, but he’s a big defensive piece for them and has 16 blocked shots in five playoff games. He’s also a decent free-throw shooter for a big, so the 905 don’t have the option of hacking him to slow the Vipers’ attack down late.
Isaiah Taylor, Rockets assignee: Taylor impressed so much with Rio during the course of the season that the Rockets inked him to a three-year deal in late February just to make sure nobody else plucked him away, then continued to play him with the Vipers outside of four brief NBA appearances. Undrafted out of Texas, Taylor now has the ball plenty with Rio, averaging 21 points and six assists during 25 regular season games and 19.6 points and 7.4 assists in five playoff outings. Don’t let his cold playoff shooting fool you, either – Taylor had a 63.7 true-shooting percentage in the regular season and can really turn the defense against itself with a pull-up three if they over-shade Wiltjer.
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 in a clinching victory Wednesday that he’s making some real progress. He’s also shooting 33.1 percent on 4.6 threes per-game with the 905, so Rio will at least have to be aware of his quick trigger. Defensively, Caboclo has taken great strides. 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, the former standing as a serious necessity against the Vipers. He should continue to see a big role in the neighborhood of 30 minutes with a banner on the line.
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 time, and so it’s been encouraging to see him hit the ground running as a two-way force at this level. In five regular season 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’s mostly kept rolling in the playoffs, averaging 14.2 points, seven rebounds, two assists, 1.8 steals, and one block over four games, though he’s yet to nail a three and his advanced metrics have struggled.
Fred VanVleet, not assigned: It does not appear that VanVleet will be assigned for the finals. He’s yet to play a playoff game due first to Kyle Lowry’s injury and then because the Raptors wanted to keep 13 active players for the postseason, so short of the Raptors meeting their demise Monday, VanVleet doesn’t figure to be available to Stackhouse and company.
Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: Both Ed have lost multiple players to NBA call-ups, thinning the most out but not slowing their momentum. There remains a lot of borderline NBA talent in this one.
Gary Payton II and Troy Williams, Bucks/Rockets: The Vipers saw intriguing defensive prospect Gary Payton Jr. earn a rest-of-season deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, while the Rockets themselves plucked Troy Williams from Iowa after he was waived by Memphis. Neither the son of Dwane Casey’s favorite player nor the D-League Slam Dunk Champion will appear here.
Darius Morris, Vipers: An NBA veteran of four seasons with five different franchises, Morris finally committed to a full season in the D-League to try to fight his way back. He hasn’t earned the call, but the 26-year-old has made his case, averaging 20 points and 6.4 assists with a 57.7 true-shooting percentage. To be completely honest, the Vipers go how their trio of assignees go, but Morris has really picked things up in the playoffs, averaging 25.3 points, 8.3 assists, and two steals. The 905 won’t worry too much about his outside shot, but he does take it freely, so they’ll have to navigate the space they give him carefully and understand that trade-off.
Chris Johnson, Vipers: Another experienced vet, the 26-year-old Johnson as played for five teams over four NBA seasons and spent nearly all of last year with the Utah Jazz. In his fourth go-round with the Vipers, Johnson is averaging 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.9 assists, and while those numbers might seem muted in this offensive system, he’s super-efficient in his low-usage role. You can only gameplan for so many players at once, and Johnson does well filling in around the edges for Rio.
Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane, Cavaliers/Pelicans: The 905 lost their two best players to call-ups, a major win for the organization but initially an apparent hit to the team’s title chances. They’ve just kept rolling, though, even with Will Sheehey and Negus Webster-Chan also unavailable and the roster down to 10. C.J. Leslie and Yanick Moreira are seeing more important time in Tavares’ stead, and Toupane’s absence has made E.J. Singler an even more important piece.
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 hit 41.8 percent of his 9.1 (!) 3-point attempts per-game in the regular season and is 15-of-37 in four playoff games. 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). That mark (plus-39!!) is the best on the team in the playoffs, too, with Heslip transitioning to his new bench role seamlessly.
E.J. Singler, 905: Stackhouse’s favorite player, even though he knows he’s not supposed to say it, Singler’s played his role exceptionally well this year. Capable of manning multiple positions (he even played some center late last year) and an important secondary ball-handler in the offense, Singler’s contributions sometimes go unnoticed beyond his threes. In a down shooting year, Singler’s still hit 35.5 percent of his long-range looks, and he’s picked a good time to heat up (10-of-23) in the playoffs.
Prediction: 905 in 3.