Photo credit: KarynStepien.com
Raptors 905 95, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 85 | Box Score | Series tied 1-1
Assignees: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, Fred VanVleet (905), Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor, Chinanu Onuaku (Vipers)
Before transitioning to coaching, Jerry Stackhouse had a long, productive playing career. His resume and the personality he became known for are big reasons he’s drawn buzz since taking over behind the bench for Raptors 905, even before they found the success they have. That success has come quickly and come in large waves, with the 905 posting the second-best record of all-time and cruising through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite losing a key piece to injury and two more to NBA call-ups.
One thing missing from Stackhouse’s profile, one that includes two All-Star appearances, five seasons averaging over 20 points, and nine trips to the postseason, is a championship. And so after the 905 dropped Game 1 of the D-League Finals to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, putting their backs up against the wall as they returned home to close out the best-two-of-three series, Stackhouse didn’t have to look too far to find the proper way to motivate his team for the moment in front of them.
“I think of Jerry Stackhouse. Played 18 years in the NBA and got all the way to the table and wasn’t able to get it done,” Stackhouse said. “Take advantage of this opportunity. This group that we’ve assembled here will never be together again. This collection won’t happen. So let’s be special. Take care of your brothers, take care of yourself, and leave it all out there. Let’s walk away whichever way knowing we left it all on the floor.
Whether the 905 would be able to respond wasn’t a question for Stackhouse from a motivational standpoint, but it posed a fairly interesting tactical challenge. The Vipers were the league’s best offense, a fast-paced, free-shooting team that eschews any shot between the arc and the paint to bludgeon teams with quick-hitting, high-efficiency looks. The 905, the league’s second-best defense, broke down some in response to that pressure in Game 1, and Stackhouse was willing to take some blame and make an adjustment that amounted to dancing with the one that brought you.
“Yeah, we’re gonna be us. It’s going back to being us,” he said. “I tried to get a little too cute and got away from who we are and who we’ve been, trying to take away one player (Kyle Wiltjer) and his ability. He’ll probably get some points tonight. The times that we are who we were defensively, we were pretty good, so we’re gonna live and die with that.”
The second clash started out with a bit of a feeling-out process, with each side looking to see what the other would tweak in terms of tactics and lineup. The 905 opted to start Yanick Moreira at center in order to tether Goodluck Okonoboh’s minutes to 290-pounder Joshua Smith, for example (Moreira responded with a really solid outing). That also allowed the 905 to approach the challenge of Wiltjer differently, giving him a bit more leeway to score in order to minimize the damage done in the paint in Game 1, when selling out to contain him above the line limited secondary help on dump-offs.
VanVleet’s presence also let Brady Heslip work as more of an off-ball threat, and the Vipers worked tirelessly to chase him around screens and off the 3-point line early on. The easing into the game led to a slower early pace, which generally favors Stackhouse’s squad, though it didn’t materialize in much of an early edge. Pascal Siakam’s aggression inside and VanVleet’s attacking helped keep the offense afloat and the defense held the D-League’s best offense (by a landslide) to 88 points per-100 possessions, but the lead maxed out at seven in the first and sat at one as the quarter ended.
Siakam went right back to work in the transition game in the second quarter, then moved into the post to begin a fun back-and-forth stretch with Chris Walker (and later, Chinanu Onuaku). Meanwhile, the Vipers made the cardinal mistake of letting Heslip get free from outside, but Rio Grande Valley’s own Canadian, Wiltjer, continued to answer back. Stackhouse’s decision to guard Wiltjer in a way that more closely resembled the team’s usual defense went about how he predicted, and so while Wiltjer took six 3-point attempts and scored 13 points in the half, the 905 were able to limit the Vipers to just 18 points in the paint and six second-chance points, big improvements from Game 1 (50 points in the paint and 20 second-chance points in total).
Another key to Wiltjer containment was going at him on defense, and the 905 were able to take him off the floor late in the second thanks to a third foul. That, and a Heslip corner three, helped the home side close out the half on a 17-7 run to take a 10-point lead into halftime, thanks in large part to the contributions of VanVleet and Siakam, the latter of who had 20 points in the half and would finish with a game-high 32.
“He played big time. I thought all of our guys played well,” Stackhouse said. “Pascal was special tonight, he just showed, he pretty much put us on his back and willed it for us.”
Wiltjer was out for revenge to start the second half, scoring 10 points in the opening six minutes of the third to bring the Vipers back within three and test the 905’s defense and resolve in their new strategy. The assignees helped get back some breathing room, with VanVleet attacking with abandon and Siakam turning away Rio Grande looks at the rim. Things stayed mostly even as each side turned to their benches, and in the end, Wiltjer’s flurry had only trimmed the lead to six entering the fourth, with the spectre of foul trouble still hanging over the sharpshooter.
The Vipers kept chipping early, and as the game got back within a possession, it seemed the 905 were facing a make-or-break moment. Siakam came up with his fifth steal of the game leading to an E.J. Singler three, and then hit a three of his own, but that modicum of control dissipated quickly, perhaps saved only by Jarvis Threatt missing a pair of free throws that could have cut the lead to one.
That set the scene for one of the most memorable sequences of the season – a Darius Morris three to tie followed by a Singler three, and then a Caboclo offensive rebound and dunk to potentially save the season and put the 905 back up five with 3:30 to go. Caboclo would take it into Wiltjer’s chest for a driving layup shortly after. VanVleet drove for a scooping layup. And then it was Siakam’s turn, throwing down a ludicrous transition hammer – and-one – to earn “MVP” chants from the Hershey Centre and put the 905 back up by nine with a minute to play.
Siakam threw down one more dunk just to be sure, and now the 905 are headed to a deciding Game 3 with a championship on the line.
“For us, it’s speed,” Stackhouse explained, drawing a parallel to the Raptors figuring out the Milwaukee Bucks as the series has gone along. “We had to get used to their speed and their pressure. Now we know what to expect, not let them rush us up, make sure we make them play defense as opposed to coming down and taking quick shots.”
Stackhouse wasn’t thrilled with how stagnant the offense got in this one, and the 905 committed 15 turnovers and were lucky the Vipers only got away with 13 points off of those. Even on a sticky night, though, they managed 20 assists, and while Stackhouse wants his team to be “opportunistic runners” to take advantage of Rio’s speed only working in one direction, if they defend like this again – the league’s top offense managed a woeful 85 points on 96 possessions – the 905 should be in good shape. And that level of defense, as much as the tweaks may have been paramount here, is going to come down to the far less tangible.
“It’s not about Xs and Os, it’s just about who wants it most right now,” he said. “It’s gonna be a dog fight. We’ll see on Thursday.”
- Almost the entire Toronto Raptors organization was out to support the 905 here, from Masai Ujiri on down. Wayne Embry, Bobby Webster, Teresa Resch, Nick Nurse, Rex Kalamian, Jim Saan, Alex McKechnie…even Matt Tierney was here. On the player side, it was DeMar DeRozan, P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll, Jakob Poeltl, and Lucas Nogueira,…DeRozan’s daughter even got a hug from Superfan Nav Bhatia at one point. I always find this to be such a good look for the team and organization, the support and camaraderie throughout the ranks. The 905ers consistently speak of the boost it gives them, too.
- Nerles Noel was also in attendance. He went to high school with Goodluck Okonoboh and was on hand to support.
- Bruno Caboclo bookended the game with strong spurts, though he wasn’t a big factor in the middle parts of the game. It’s telling, one game after he rode the bench for the bulk of the second half, that Stackhouse has the faith in him to task him with closing out the game. He responded with that terrific closing sequence – “Big buckets,” as Stackhouse called it – and really seemed to embrace the energy of the situation. He finished with six points, five rebounds, four blocks, and a plus-9 in 26 minutes.
- Pascal Siakam was the best player on the floor, which is exactly what a team wants to see out of its assignment player. That’s been the case for Siakam more often than not, and he was big in Game 1, too, but this was likely his best D-League performance yet. He finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds, and had five steals and two blocks on his way to a game-best plus-15 in 44 minutes. He was awesome.
- Fred VanVleet had a bit of an adjustment period offensively, having played little over the last while, but he eventually found a groove and chipped in with some pivotal sequences. He hit some tough, tough shots, defended well in transition, and kept his teammates involved around his scoring bursts, finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, and a plus-11 in 37 minutes.
- I asked VanVleet about getting his first career playoff points on Monday, and he was pretty excited: “It’s dope, man. You know me, everybody else probably don’t know, but you know, I’m taking whatever I can get. Scored my first points last night in a playoff game. I’ll take it. It’s like in 2K, you got milestones, you got the little achievements, and that’s just another one.”
- The team wasn’t certain whether VanVleet would play with the 905 in Game 3, but that was the hope around Hershey Centre.
- Rockets assignee Isaiah Taylor left the game three minutes in due to an apparent ankle injury and didn’t return. Even with a second point guard in the starting lineup in Darius Morris, Taylor was a big, big loss – he had 17 points and 10 assists in Game 1. If he can’t go Thursday, that’s a potential difference-maker.
- I caught up a bit with Will Sheehey before the game. He’s coming along well in his recovery from a dislocated elbow, is out of a permanent brace, and has progressed to dribbling with his right hand. He’s about three weeks away from a return to playing which, while meaningless for the 905, is great for his potential Summer League opportunities. He was a big part of what the 905 did before he went down.
- This game got bumped from NBA TV Canada on short notice, which seems insane but is what it is.
- The 905 will now prepare for Game 3 at Hershey Centre on Thursday, which just so happens to conflict with Raptors-Bucks Game 6 (hooray!).
- Raptors Republic readers can get discounted 905 playoff tickets by using the promo code REPUBLIC905.