Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com
Raptors 905 106, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 119 | Box Score | Vipers lead series 1-0
Assignees: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo (905), Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor, Chinanu Onuaku (Vipers)
Over the course of the season, Raptors 905 have faced several tests. They’ve worked in new pieces, dealt with short-notice and short-term assignments, juggled the roster through trade, suffered injuries, and lost key players to call-ups. They have not yet dealt with the type of adversity and urgency that now lays before them after dropping Game 1 of the D-League Finals 119-106 to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Sunday. The D-League playoff format is a best two-of-three, and while the 905 now have the benefit of home court, their first loss since in a very long time has their backs against the wall.
They knew the stakes coming in on Sunday, and the D-League’s best road team ever expected to bring the fight to an elite offense, challenging them with the No. 2 defense and looking to grind the game down. Out of the gate, it looked like the 905 might be set to treat the Vipers like they did the Charge and Red Claws before them, just steamrolling through. It was nearly four minutes before Rio Grande Valley had hit a field goal, with their lone point coming on a split at the line from underhanded shooter Chinanu Onuaku. A swarming, switchy defense chased shooter after shooter off the line, with players flying everywhere on a string. The 905, meanwhile, had poured in 10 within control, including a pair of early threes from Bruno Caboclo and an easy dunk for Pascal Siakam on a nice dish from the Brazilian.
But the Vipers’ continued plugging away within their identity, and the clash of styles eventually led to some bend on the 905 side. With Rio pushing off of every make or miss, Jerry Stackhouse’s squad somewhat uncharacteristically struggled to slow them down, and the Vipers quickly pulled back even, then took a brief lead of their own. The 905 bigs attacked Kyle Wiltjer the other way in order to try to turn his usage into a net negative, and C.J. Leslie in particular found success getting into him in the post (he’d finish with a game-high 25 points). The 905 would take a two-point lead back by the end of the quarter, but the tone had been set, and this was going to be a slugfest rather than a one-way bludgeoning.
“We just came out with not enough energy,” Vipers head coach Matt Brase said at halftime. That was corrected pretty quickly and was never again an issue.
Brady Heslip struggling into the second quarter proved problematic, with the 905 simply too thinned out by call-ups and injury to afford a poor showing from their best scorer. That shifted some of the onus elsewhere, and with the team a little light on shooting, that meant a steady diet of touches for Siakam. The rookie responded well despite a few hiccups turning the ball over, and he and John Jordan found a nice chemistry for a stretch (including a terrific split of a double-team by Jordan on a side pick-and-roll). That just wasn’t enough, though, not with the Vipers continuing to let fly from outside and starting to heat up. A pair of Julien Lewis triples pushed the Vipers out to a seven-point lead, the biggest 905 deficit of the postseason.
They cut that lead to four at halftime, though they entered the break reeling somewhat for the first time in weeks. The 905 have always responded well to adversity, and this was a chance to play from behind, something they hadn’t done much of over the last month-and-a-half.
And they tried. The close-outs became more frantic, the effort still at a very high level, but the Vipers were ready. They attacked from the corner or on contests, and when the 905 help slid into position, they willingly dumped it off. That the 905 kept the score tight through the first half of the third was commendable, but Rio Grande Valley’s looks were too easy too consistently, their passing too willing, and the 905 struggled to keep up with help-the-helper’s-helper situations. And for the first time, the lack of elite rim protection without Edy Tavares reared its head. Darius Morris then pushed things forward himself, going on a personal mini-run to take a double-digit lead that put the 905 in serious need of a quick response and showing the edge handfuls of NBA experience can hold in a big moment (he’d finish with 23 points and 11 assists in a masterful performance). The 905 response could only come in brief pulses, every Siakam post-up or Heslip triple answered with a Morris bucket or Wiltjer three.
That set up an 11-point hill to climb in the fourth, and while the 905 hadn’t been in this position much, the Vipers ranked as the league’s second-worst defense and the 905 its third-best 3-point shooting team by percentage. The lead quickly swelled to 15 despite Morris taking a breather, and it took everything the 905 had to slowly chip back into it, ultimately cutting it to seven with just under four minutes to go. Morris and Chris Johnson responded promptly though, a few offensive rebounds extended Viper possessions, and turnover problems crept up to prevent the comeback from ever getting to the point of Rio Grande Valley feeling legitimately threatened.
For the first time since March 10, a span of 12 victories, most of them against stiff competition, the 905 have lost. How they’ll bounce back is a question that hasn’t been asked in a very long time, and they won’t have the benefit of taking their time finding out. Game 2 goes Tuesday back home, and there is no more room for error. Win, and they’ll get to play a deciding final game at home, something they worked all year to make sure they’d have. Winning two at home is very much on the table. A loss, though, ends an incredible run. The system has been built on a foundation of buy-in and collective self-belief, and never will those pillars be tested more than on Tuesday. If the season’s taught the D-League anything, it’s that a bounce-back from Stackhouse’s group can’t be ruled out.
- Bruno Caboclo took a step back from his Game 2 performance in the East finals, thought he wasn’t bad here. He started the game out incredibly well, but Stackhouse seemed to feel that energy dissipated, as the 21-year-old was hardly a rumor in the second half. He finished with six points and three rebounds in 22 minutes and was a -2. There was a sequence early in the first where, after hitting a pair of threes to open the game, where Caboclo successfully rotated onto three different players in a single defensive possession, grabbed the defensive rebound, led the fast break, and found Siakam with a crisp pass underneath for an easy dunk. If you ever wanted a 20-second stretch with which to refuel your faith in the Caboclo experiment, that might be it. Those who aren’t fans of the experiment could point to his impact-free third quarter stint. As always, there’s a ton of nuance to be sorted through.
- Pascal Siakam left less to interpretation. He busted out a really nice Euro-step in semi-transition that I didn’t realize he had in his arsenal just yet early on, used a nifty head-fake on a face-up attack, had a couple of nice blocks as a helper, and was about the only player who could slow Morris at the rim. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting and added 10 rebounds and two blocks, and while he committed four turnovers, this was one of his better postseason outings. The 905 played to a draw with him out there, and he and Leslie were the only ones getting consistent offense. It was nice to see Siakam consistenly calling for the ball, too.
- At 290 pounds, Joshua Smith barreling down the lane is a scary sight. He had a second-quarter dunk where there was genuine concern that the net was going to break. He looks like a much better prospect now that he’s down 50 pounds, but he’s no less scary on the move. Smith was also a big factor in limited minutes in this one, especially on the offensive glass, and without Tavares the 905 really don’t have a body to answer with.
- Isaiah Taylor also had a massive dunk attempt, but he missed the finish and the ball nearly hit the ceiling.
- The Vipers claimed former 905er Michale Kyser from the D-League player pool for this series. Clearly, he gave away all the secrets that still hold from a year ago.
- Fun side-note: The Vipers have won two championships in their history, and the last one came with Raptors assistant Nick Nurse as the head coach.
- Rio Grande Valley sold out an arena that is not their normal home court in this one, a really nice nod to their fan base. There was a weird scheduling quirk that prevented them from playing in their usual barn, and the crowd answered the call in the intimate McAllen Convention Center.
- The 905 will now return home for Game 2 at Hershey Centre on Tuesday.
- Raptors Republic readers can get discounted 905 playoff tickets by using the promo code REPUBLIC905.