Photo credit: KarynStepien.com
Raptors 905 122, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 96 | Box Score | Raptors 905 win D-League Championship series 2-1
Assignees: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, Fred VanVleet (905), Kyle Wiltjer, Troy Williams Chinanu Onuaku (Vipers)
The D-League would have been hard-pressed to set up a better story for the deciding Game 3 of their championship. Two powerhouse teams that ranked first and second in net rating by way of contrasting styles, an elite offense against an elite defense, both teams succeeding through multiple call-ups and with the aid, here in the postseason, of valuable assignment players from their NBA counterparts. They are model franchises, with success measured on all three pillars with which the D-League aims to build: Developing NBA players, getting other players to the NBA, and, of course, winning. There was no more fitting a showdown.
In Game 1, the lethal offense of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers won out, baiting Raptors 905 into a pace unbefitting of their modus operandi. In Game 2, it was the defense of the 905 suffocating the Vipers and grinding the pace to a halt. Now, here at Hershey Centre in Mississauga – the 905 had earned home court by way of the second-best record in league history – the entire season came down to a game, one more clash between the diametric approaches, the former NBA All-Star bench boss against a coach who rose from the ranks of internship, an unstoppable force against an immovable object going one last round.
Despite the storybook situation, head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s message to his team wasn’t one of rising to the occasion. Rather, trusting in the preparation and success to this point, the 18-year veteran leaned on his own experience and instead asked his charges to focus their attention elsewhere.
“The details. The details of the gameplan,” he said. “Not getting caught up in, it’s too much to think about, the pressure of this moment. If that’s what you think about, then you won’t be able to relax and be who you are.”
Whether it was putting aside the pressure or responding to it, Bruno Caboclo sensed the moment. The game opened with Caboclo scoring through a foul, then finishing with a left, going into the chest of Chinanu Onuaku, later hitting a three, and another, and slamming home a lob from Pascal Siakam on a back-door cut. By the time the first quarter was through, Caboclo had 14 points and the 905 led 27-18. For all the pre-game talk about quick adjustments to a Vipers roster that was in upheaval before tip-off, it was Caboclo whom neither side seemed ready for, the Vipers unable to slow him and the 905 mostly just shrugging and continuing to feed the young Brazilian.
Caboclo’s early dominance lent an important opening salvo, the third time in as many games the 905 have started out well. Against an opponent as lethal as the Vipers, every early edge matters, and Rio Grande Valley wasn’t going to be willing to just concede to an early run. The second started out with them pushing back quickly and firing from long range, looking to open up the paint some if the Raptors scrambled too aggressively to chase them off the line. The returns came quick, and the 905 were a little guilty of allowing the Vipers to dictate the pace for a stretch. Were it not for the strong shot-making of Fred VanVleet – and an open-court lob to fellow point guard John Jordan – the lead may have dissipated entirely.
“I kinda wanted to stay and finish business anyway,” VanVleet said of staying behind rather than joining the Raptors in Milwaukee for Game 6.
Instead, the 905 held their guard, letting the lead chip down as low as two but never once surrendering it. As the assignment players filtered back in late in the quarter, they stretched that back out, with a high-low for a Siakam foul sending them into the half up eight, with the three assignment players have combined for 43 of their 57 points. This being the Vipers, that lead surely only came with a modicum of comfort – they led 10 at half in Game 2, after all, and had to fight tooth and nail to close that out.
Sensing that, the 905 came out a house afire in the second half. The lessons learned from a tough Game 1, from a lead nearly lost in Game 2, and from a season of closing out games – the 905 entered this game 38-1 when leading entering the fourth – taught the 905 what’s necessary to put things away, and they came out ready to make sure they didn’t start letting leads slip in the championship game.
“Just go out and fight for what we worked so hard for all season long,” Stackhouse said. “We fought to be in this spot, we talked about being in this spot, being in this position, to be able to win a championship.”
And so Caboclo continued his absolute dominance of the game, quickly pouring in 10 points as the lead swelled beyond 20. Their own season on the line, the Vipers weren’t going to go quietly. Jarvis Threatt and Troy Williams, the latter on assignment on short notice but drawing a “I don’t even know who they are” from Stackhouse before the game – looked to swing things after a slow start to his night, and Rio Grande Valley really began ratcheting up the volume of their 3-point attempts in an attempt to play the high-variance game. VanVleet kept the offense steady, though (including a beautiful Steve Nashing under the basket), and the 905 continued to stay within themselves through the frame, entering the fourth with a 21-point lead.
Unlike their parent club over in Wisconsin, the 905 kept their collective foot firmly on the gas through the fourth, never letting the Vipers back anywhere close to single-digits. VanVleet continued to run a sound offense, the Vipers went away from the three some after finding more success inside. In a fitting bit of imagery, Caboclo put the exclamation mark on a close-out for the second game in a row with a big offensive rebound and put-back, killing a Vipers mini-run and turning the game over to a glorified and intense play-out-the-string scenario. Caboclo would hit one more shot to tie his career-high with 31 points before he and the other assignees checked out to watch the final 62 seconds from the bench.
And like that, Raptors 905 are your 2017 D-League Champions.
Of course, the celebration wasn’t without some added dramatics. Upset that the 905 took an unnecessary shot late in the game, the Vipers didn’t go quietly, and the two sides had to be pulled apart from a shoving match after the buzzer. Even as the 905 separated and tried to begin celebrating, officials had to intervene to get the sides separated. They then reviewed to see if a fraction of a second needed to be put back on the clock, even though it was a 25-point game. Then VanVleet was tossed for trying to dap up his friend Chinanu Onuaku, who was also thrown out (along with Joshua Smith). The whole thing was exceptionally weird.
THEN Raptors 905 became your official 2017 D-League Champions.
“Our guys, they trusted each other, we worked for it every day,” Stackhouse said on the floor after the game. “These guys are awesome.”
Given what the team went through to get here, it’s hard not to feel like the best team won in the end. Blessed with an exceptionally deep and talented roster, the 905 withstood trades, call-ups, injuries, and often inconsistent and impromptu assignments, never once losing steam or losing their identity at both ends of the floor. Stackhouse learned a great deal on the fly, the roster bought in to is all-for-one identity to a man, and there was no speed bump the 905 couldn’t withstand.
Built on the fly and on short notice, patched together in year one, the growth in the organization has been palpable over the last 18 months. To see it come together and culminate in a championship so soon, capping such a remarkably successful season, only felt fitting.
- Bruno Caboclo was terrific. It almost seems perfect that after a second consecutive up-and-down D-League season for him, he would turn in the best performance of his career on this big a stage, with the stakes this high, as the entire 905 experiment reached a peak nobody really expected to reach in their sophomore campaign. Not only was Caboclo a factor on the defensive end, getting hands on everything and blocking four shots with 11 rebounds, but this was, without question, the most complete offensive performance of his time here. He finished with 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting, hit five threes, scored in transition, attacking one-on-one, moving off-ball, spotting up, it was great. Caboclo still has a way to go, and this performance hasn’t been the norm for him on offense. But if ever there was a game to watch for Caboclo optimism, ever a game to see what Caboclo can bring, and ever a time for him to do it, this was it.
- Pascal Siakam had less emphatic a game, but after he helped carry the team in Game 2, a small step back could be expected. He was still very efficient, scoring 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds with four assists, and he was a strong defensive presence, particularly in transition, a huge deal against Rio’s attack. As a result, he finished a game-best plus-27 in 35 minutes. He also earned D-League Finals MVP honors, turning in just a terrific series overall.
- Fred VanVleet once again looked too advanced for this level, scoring 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and dishing 14 dimes. He also added five rebounds, helped frustrate Morris into foul trouble, and wound up with a plus-25 in 36 minutes. The second the game ended, all he cared about was whether the Raptors were hanging on, which tells you a lot of what you need to know about VanVleet. He was masterful here.
- In a very nice moment, Stackhouse dedicated the victory to Nathan Smith and his family. Smith has cystic fibrosis and has spent a lot of time around the team this year, growing to be a part of the 905 family.
- Rockets assignee Isaiah Taylor sprained his ankle on Tuesday and played just three minutes. Because he was unavailable, and because the Houston Rockets took care of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, the Rockets recalled him and instead assigned Troy Williams. Chris Johnson also missed the game due to a head injury.
- Scarborough native Negus Webster-Chan returned here after a couple of weeks on the shelf due to a concussion. He didn’t play a ton, but he brought some nice energy and drew a really savvy (and hard) charge in transition in the second quarter. It’s unclear what his plans are for next season, but considering he’s been around the Raptors for a while (modelling for Real Sports and working as an extra body in pre-draft workouts), the 905 would almost surely like to have him back.
- There were far fewer members of the Raptors organization in attendance for this one than Tuesday, obviously, because of Raptors-Bucks. Attendance was much stronger, though, with a crowd of 4,824 on hand. That’s the highest attendance the 905 had all year outside of the two games at Air Canada Centre and an early-season “school day” game with bus-loads of children.
- Thanks so much for following along with all of our 905 coverage the last two seasons!