Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
Raptors 905 92, Grand Rapids Drive 88 | Box Score
Assignees: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson (905), None (Drive)
Two-ways: Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller (905), Reggie Hearn, Kay Felder (Drive)
A new G League postseason format meant despite owning the third-best record in the league during the regular season, Raptors 905 had their backs against the wall in their first playoff game on Friday. Hosting the Grand Rapids Drive at Hershey Centre, there was no room for error – it was a one-and-done playoff series, and a single loss would end a terrific season.
A 92-88 victory would not come easy. With two of the league’s top-four defenses going head-to-head, offense was at a premium, as two slow-paced, incredibly physical teams played every possession like, well, it was a single-elimination format. Hanging over the proceedings, too, was the recent loss of Zeke Upshaw, a beloved Grand Rapids forward to whom the teams paid tribute before the game.
The Drive came out with great spirit of play, as could be expected given the difficult circumstances they were playing under. They were aggressive attacking on the offensive end and spirited on defense, and they made the 905 feel them early. That was especially true on the glass, which always threatened to be where this game’s biggest battle was waged – the 905 were the league’s best rebounding team, Grand Rapids its second-best, and the Drive thrived on a nine-to-six rebounding edge in the first quarter, good for five second-chance points. A lot of that had to do with Landry Nnoko’s presence inside, and the Drive’s ability to keep a second natural big on the floor most of the time neutralized some of the 905’s normal wing-crashing advantage on the boards. There’s little lost for Grand Rapids with dual behemoths in the starting lineup, either, as Derek Willis is skilled enough to play outside, even feeding Nnoko with a nice high-low off of a shorted pick-and-roll.
Outside of the physicality, there was the matter of shot-making, too, and while energy can’t really help in that regard, the Drive executed well and moved the ball to positive results. Bronson Koenig hit three tough shots immediately upon checking in, Reggie Hearn and Jamel Morris hit from outside, and all three 905 turnovers resulted in points the other way. The 905 couldn’t match that offensive precision, with their best source of offense being Lorenzo Brown snaking through the paint for floaters or free throws. Brown had 10 points and three assists in the first and the 905 shot 47.4 percent in the half, but it took an Aaron Best triple late in the quarter to keep them within five.
“Basically just get a basket the best way we could,” Brown said of the strategy. “They were playing some amazing defense. It was tough for me to get to the rim so I had to make some adjustments to my game.”
Best opened the second with a big three, as well, kick-starting an important stretch for a relatively new-look bench unit. Jerry Stackhouse had opted to start Davion Berry at the two and move Best to the bench, and a four-out look around Shevon Thompson that had the 6-foot-4 Best as the de facto power forward on defense went on a 12-6 run over five minutes to take a lead. That defense carried over as starters filtered back in, and with the template having been set by Thompson, Brown looked to Kennedy Meeks inside despite the Drive being able to match size.
Turnovers remained a problem, though, and three miscues in short order gave Grand Rapids a window to get back out ahead by five, the game settling in to a physical back-and-forth from there. The sides traded well-contested misses around the rim, Malcolm Miller responded to a Kay Felder three with one of his own, and a briefly effective zone look from Grand Rapids was negated by K.J. McDaniels continuing to miss at the other end and then busted by Meeks’ second three of the season (on 19 attempts). Neither side could gain separation, and the 905 were able to cut the lead to one right before the break when the Drive fell asleep arguing a call and had to foul Meeks on an outlet. That the 905 were so close despite shooting 40.5 percent from the floor and failing to capitalize on 10 Grand Rapids turnovers was a minor victory, their 7-of-17 mark from outside floating them in a way it didn’t most of the year.
Grand Rapids came out of the half with the same energy they opened the game with, quickly putting the 905 on their heels with an aggressive attack. Where it was a Felder-led offense with Nnoko feasting on scraps earlier, the approach was all Nnoko here, and he racked up eight points in the first few minutes of the half. With little developing in the flow of the offense, Brown took it on himself to keep the 905 close, unleashing more floaters, a triple, and a ridiculous step-back two late in the clock. He had nine of the team’s first 10 points in the half, and it wasn’t until nearly 10 minutes in that a 905 player other than Brown hit a field goal (it was Malachi Richardson, having a solid game off the bench).
The intensity level on defense and in transition kept Grand Rapids from gaining too much separation, with bodies on both sides hitting the floor for loose balls or in scrambles around the rim, and Richardson came through with his second timely three of the night to keep the 905 within four entering the fourth. Richardson came through from outside again at the top of the fourth and later drove to the rim to save a broken play late in the clock. A bit of a heat-check pull-up in transition didn’t find the mark, but Richardson and the bench had done enough to stay within striking distance for the starters, most of whom re-entered much earlier than in the regular season rotation.
“It feels good. We definitely needed it,” Richardson said. “I’ve been putting in work all year, and I think that stretch of games where I didn’t shoot the ball well may have persuaded people the wrong way. But I’m a basketball player, it happens. Making shots and being able to help my team out is important. It just shows the work.”
Both teams felt the urgency down the stretch, and the game grew physical once again. It also grew a little weird since it’s a G League playoff game, with both coaches angry about missed calls (a double-dribble and an offensive cylinder interference, respectively). It was Alfonzo McKinnie’s turn to have a moment, as he sandwiched dunks – one cutting baseline after Thompson corralled a miss and one a put-back in transition – around a Felder jumper, then hit a mid-range jumper on a baseline inbound play.
“I thought our guys at the end, when we needed, Alfonzo stepped up and made some big plays for us, and we got the stops on the defensive end that we needed,” Stackhouse said. “I thought Malachi, he came up and gave us some life there in the second half. Struggled to score a little bit there. Both teams played really good defense. I expected this game to be a battle and it absolutely was.”
A hesitation attack from Brown later and the 905 had their largest lead of the game at four points, with only four minutes to play. Brown followed it up with another tough pull-up from the high block only to miss the next two, and a three from Willis and free throws for Felder had the Drive back within one with under 90 seconds to go. The Drive brought heavy on-ball pressure to make life tough on Brown, and even a switch onto a big came in tight quarters late, resulting in a Nnoko block. He drew a foul on the rebound scramble, too, splitting the pair to reset the score with two possessions’ worth of time left. Their season on the line, Brown made a read based on how the past few possessions had went, calling for a play that ran the ball threw Meeks in the post. Meeks found a cutting McKinnie for a tough floater, which proved to be the game-winning shot.
“It feels good, just because I was able to be myself, man,” McKinnie said. “Just was able to help the team get over that hump and put the game away kinda with that last-minute bucket.”
Felder shot for the win in response, missing a three, and Stackhouse won a coach’s challenge to get 905 possession after the rebound. Brown split a pair in the intentional foul game, giving the Drive a chance to tie with 10.3 on the clock, and a hand-off for a Koenig corner three missed the mark. Fuquan Edwin sealed it with a free throw, and the 905 were moving on.
- Assignment notes
- Alfonzo McKinnie had a quiet night until the fourth quarter, when a six-point outburst more or less swung the game back the 905’s way. His impact down the stretch really can’t be overstated, and it says a lot more than his final line (11 points, five rebounds, two blocks, minus-3). They probably don’t win this game without his last eight minutes or so.
- Malachi Richardson likewise had some huge minutes, propping up a second-unit offense that didn’t have their usual lead scorer in Berry. It was maybe his best all-around performance with the 905 and his second-best scoring night, as he finished with 15 points on 12 used possessions. He really swung those key bench minutes, finishing a plus-8.
- Other 905 player notes
- Lorenzo Brown took 28 possessions to get his 24 points, sure, but considering Grand Rapids is an elite defense and the 905 could muster little else for long stretches, Brown’s points were all completely necessary. He’s the only 905 player who can reliably get his own shot with some consistency, and a number of his misses came in late-clock scenarios. He added six rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks, and it was his call to go away from himself on the game-winning play.
- Malcolm Miller had a quiet offensive night, shooting 1-of-6 for five points. He was his usual self on the defensive end against an opponent with multiple shooting weapons on the wing.
- Kennedy Meeks and Shevon Thompson answered the call against Grand Rapids’ huge frontcourt, going for 12-and-10 and 8-and-8, respectively…Thompson, Fuquan Edwin, and Aaron Best were all a plus-10.
- Drive notes: Landry Nnoko has a really good shot to be on an NBA roster next year. He doesn’t have much of a face-up game, but he’s strong and agile inside and was one of the league’s best rebounders and rim protectors. He had 18-and-9 here and was a plus-2…Kay Felder scored 24 points on 22 possessions…K.J. McDaniels struggled to a 3-of-15 night from the floor.
- Zeke Upshaw: Both teams wore shooting shirts honoring the late Zeke Upshaw, a Grand Rapids player who passed away earlier this week. There was also a moment of silence for him before the game.
- “The G League is like a family, and I think we saw a lot of the bond of the family tonight, too, everybody paying their respects for Zeke Upshaw and his family,” Stackhouse said. “I think he would be proud of the game that was played tonight. Fortunately for us, we came out on the top side, but those guys competed, those coaches coached hard, and it was one hell of a game.”
- The 905 now head to Westchester for a one-game series on Monday (7 p.m.).