Raptors 905 @ Austin Spurs: G League Championship Series Preview

Repeat season.

Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca

Raptors 905 are two wins from making G League history. After winning three single-elimination playoff series, they’re back in the G League Championship, looking to become the first team since 2005 to repeat as champions. It’s nearly unprecedented for a reason – not only are championships hard to come by, anyway, but the G League sees nearly your entire roster turnover each year. There’s also the matter of format changes, Pyrrhic victories that lead to call-ups, and so on. Here the 905 are, though, on the doorstep of doing something special once again.

Fittingly, the Austin Spurs team opposite them is their biggest test yet. It’s truly a meeting between the two best teams in the league for the championship – luckily the one-and-done rounds didn’t include any major upsets – and a chance for either side to leave little doubt they were the best team in the G League this year. Austin has been great more or less since the outset of the season, and while the 905 took a while to get there, the two sides matchup pretty evenly heading into what should be a terrific three-game series.

The Format: Following single-elimination series to this point, the G League Championship will be contested in a best-of-three, 1-1-1 travel format. Last year, the away side drew the first home game, then travelled for the next two. Here, the 905 will travel, return home, and travel again if necessary. It’ll probably be a nice reprieve to not be in a constant elimination setting, even if the room for error is still nil. Austin has been at home forever because of the new format, by the way – they had a bye through the first round and were the home team in each of their two playoff games after that.

The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!: 

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Austin Spurs  Sunday, April 8, 7 pm, ESPNU and Facebook
Game 2: Austin Spurs @ Raptors 905 – Tuesday, April 10, 8pm, ESPNU and Facebook
Game 3: Raptors 905 @ Austin Spurs – Friday, April 13, 7pm, ESPN 2 and Facebook – if necessary

The G League is looking to make sure that their playoffs don’t overlap with the NBA playoffs like they did last year (when the 905 raised the trophy as the Raptors clinched over the Bucks), so this three-game finals will take place over just six days. Raptors Republic readers can use the promo code 905PLAYOFFS for a discount on tickets for Game 2.

Season Series: The 905 and Spurs met only once during the regular season, with the 905 handling their business with surprising ease on New Year’s Eve. It was a defensive showcase for a group that was still establishing itself as a powerhouse on that end at that time.

  • Raptors 905 93, Austin Spurs 78, Dec. 31 in Mississauga – The 905 bring the clamps out, holding Austin to 35-percent shooting while Lorenzo Brown flirts with a triple-double

The Tale of the Tape: The 905 have had an interesting road of competition to this point. They first played a team who matched up with them stylistically (a Poor Man’s Version of themselves). Next, they played likely the third-best team in the G League this year, one against whom they’d split four games and who they resembled at least a little bit. On Friday, they played a very different opponent flush with assignees. Austin will be different. Austin have spent the season establishing themselves as the class of the G League, and they’re the only opponent with a more legitimate claim as the team to beat than the 905, at least until this series is over.

The Spurs not only edged the 905 in record, they topped them in net rating and finished in the top seven at both ends of the floor. The 905 will always have a rebounding edge, and the Spurs are game to play at the 905’s preferred grittier pace, so this won’t play out under drastically different terms of engagement than those the 905 like to play under. Austin is somewhat unique in that they share the ball at 2016-17 Raptors levels yet still shoot the three pretty well, using those passes judiciously to set up shooters. Defensively, Austin isn’t as good as the 905, and yet even there they’ve held opponents to nearly as low an effective field-goal percentage. The 905 will probably have to win this series as they’ve won most big games this year: With their defense.

In a twist from the other series previews, we reached out to Gareth Gibbins from Spurs in the 6 to help us out. Gareth is a Toronto-based Spurs fan who spends a lot of time watching the G League, and as such is uniquely qualified to help us break this one down.

Blake Murphy: Raptors 905 has quickly become one of the defining aspects of the growth of the Toronto Raptors’ organization and reputation. The come-up over the half decade has been Spurs-adjace, or at least that’s been the hope. For San Antonio, how important have the Austin Spurs been over the years? Are they similarly a pillar of that organization?

Gareth Gibbins: Like most other trends in the NBA, the Spurs were ahead of the curve. The Austin Toros joined the D League in 2004 and the San Antonio Spurs became the second NBA team to purchase a D League affiliate in 2007, changing the franchise name to the Austin Spurs.

The Spurs also wrote the playbook for developing NBA draft picks in the D League, with Canadian Corey Joseph being the blueprint. Drafted 29th overall, Joseph spent the better part of his rookie season in 2011-12 driving back and forth on I-35 (the interstate between San Antonio and Austin) to get playing time and learn the Spurs system. This was unusual at the time. I am convinced that without his work ethic and time developing in the D League, Joseph would have spent his rookie contract languishing on the end of the bench and would have been out of the NBA and playing overseas shortly after that. Plus this never would have happened.

Then there is Jonathan Simmons who may just be the greatest G League / D League success story to date. By now, I think everyone knows that he had to pay a $150 registration fee just to try out for the Austin Spurs before earning a two year contract with the San Antonio Spurs and a bigger pay day with the Orlando Magic after that. The current San Antonio Spurs roster has seven players with G League / D League experience – Danny Green, Davis Bertans, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Paul, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes (#SummerofBryn) and Derrick White (more on him in a second).

Blake Murphy: Derrick White has been a monster for Austin but has played under 200 NBA minutes this year. For those unfamiliar with his game, what does the rookie bring to the table?

Gareth Gibbins: Drafted 29th overall, White is a 6’4” combo guard who basically had no chance of playing meaningful minutes for the big league club given the glut of guards (let alone small guards) on the Spurs roster.

White is an older rookie (he turns 24 in June) having spent five years in college – he sat out a year when he moved from Division II to Division I after his junior year. Injuries have slowed down White’s development this year – he missed a month of play after fracturing his right wrist in early November. With all of the Spurs injuries, White spent the majority of January and February with the Spurs (mostly on the bench). White played more G League games in March (nine) then January and February combined (eight).

On the court, White is comfortable shooting the 3; whether off the dribble, off a screen or spotting up. He also has some sneaky athleticism and took the
South Bay Lakers off the dribble repeatedly when he dropped 35 points in the Western Conference Final. Lorenzo Brown will certainly not be able to rest on the defence side of the floor and will have to fight over a lot of the screens – if Brown goes under the screens, regardless of the hedge from the 905 big, White will make the 905 pay.

Blake Murphy: Outside of White and their two-ways, who are the highest impact players for Austin? Are we all re-thinking Nick Johnson’s NBA viability yet?

Gareth Gibbins: Jaron Blossomgame. The 6-7 forward out of Clemson was drafted by the Spurs 59th overall last year. One of the G League’s best dunkers, his game has developed as the season has progressed. Blossomgame has also been a rock for Austin, appearing in all 50 G League games, averaging 16.5 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 54.6% from the floor with an impressive +4.4 rating.

During March, with White playing regularly in Austin, Blossomgame averaged 21.7 points. While he needs to continue to work on his outside shot, I am excited to watch Blossomgame’s development going forward. If he can have a good summer league and carry that momentum into training camp we may vary well see him in the NBA next season.

While Nick Johnson and Canadian Olivier Hanlan have also been impact players at times over the course of the season, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention fan favourite Jeff Ledbetter as the dark horse player to swing a game in Austin’s favour. Averaging over six 3PA per game and having posted a G League career high 30 points against the Maine Red Claws back in January (8 made 3’s), Ledbetter can put up points in a hurry.

Blake Murphy: Where do you see Austin providing the stiffest challenge to the defense-first, rebound-everything 905?

Gareth Gibbins: This is not the same Austin team the 905 defeated earlier this season on New Years Eve when the 905 were without White and two way player Matt Costello. Speaking of White, as noted above, he will put a lot of pressure on the 905 defence. It will be interesting to see whether Stackhouse leaves Brown on White or, perhaps, Aaron Best sees more time. If the 905 are successful in slowing down White (good luck), they will also have to contend with two-way player Darrun Hilliard who averaged 20.7 ppg this season. The 905 could sure use Bruno Caboclo’s defence for this series… just saying.

It will also be interesting to see how the 905 bigs handle Austin’s size down low. At 6-9 and 245, the aforementioned Costello is a handful. Much like White, Costello spent a good portion of January and February with the San Antonio Spurs. Since returning to the G League in March, Costello has been averaging 3 blocks a game (he is at 2.1 blocks for the seasons) and set a G League postseason record with 11 blocks in the Western Conference Finals. Speaking of blocks, things will not get any easier for the 905 while Costello is on the bench with 6-10 Amida Brimah and his league leading 2.6 blocks per-game patrolling the paint.

I am so pumped for this series – it has the potential to be epic!

Assignees and Depth Charts: Raptors 905 were among the teams who benefited most from the implementation of the two-way system this year, as Lorenzo Brown and Malcolm Miller have been two of their best players. Everything runs through Brown offensively, and Miller’s shooting is paramount to providing space in an offense that’s light on shooters. Miller is also perhaps the best defender on the league’s best defense. Joining them frequently have been Alfonzo McKinnie and Malachi Richardson, with McKinnie nearly repeating his All-Star numbers from 2016-17 exactly and Richardson finding a groove since the playoffs began. There have also been major contributions from the G League regulars, with the center duo of Kennedy Meeks and Shevon Thompson standing as undefeated in paint battles all season long and a number of defense-first contributors stepping up in the back court and on the wings game to game.

Austin succeeded largely due to the quality of their full-time G League players, though they suffered a major loss before the playoffs when Livio Jean-Charles left the team to go play in Spain. There are still notable and familiar bedrocks in Nick Johnson, Jaron Blossomgame, Julian Washburn, and Canadians Olivier Hanlan, and they’ll have the benefit of three San Antonio Spurs here: 3-and-D wing Darrun Hilliard, emerging stretch-five Matt Costello, and Derrick White, likely the G League playoffs MVP so far. White averaged over 20 points in his 24 games with Austin this season, scored 20 with six assists in the second round against Rio Grande Valley, then hung 35 on South Bay in the Western Conference Finals.

If any team has the personnel to make life tough on White, it’s the 905, who can throw a combination of Brown, Aaron Best, Miller, and Fuquan Edwin at him (and maybe Kaza Keane, Kethan Savage, or Roger Moute a Bidias if Jerry Stackhouse really wants to extend his rotation; he used 11 players in the Eastern Conference Finals).  How that matchup goes will probably determine a lot of the series, as the 905 can be expected to win the battle inside and the Spurs the battle from long range. Brown against White is going to be a heck of a showdown, even if there’s some cross-matching as each team tries to keep the other lead guard in check.

PG: Lorenzo Brown (two-way), Davion Berry, Kaza Keane, Kethan Savage
SG: Aaron Best, Malachi Richardson (assignment), Negus Webster-Chan
SF: Malcolm Miller (two-way), Fuquan Edwin
PF: Alfonzo McKinnie (assignment), Roger Moute a Bidias
C: Kennedy Meeks, Shevon Thompson, Andre Washington

Austin Spurs
PG: Derrick White (assignment), Jeff Ledbetter, Kendal Yancy
SG: Darrun Hilliard (two-way), Nick Johnson, Jordan Green
SF: Jaron Blossomgame, Olivier Hanlan, Tucker Haymond
PF: Julian Washburn, Daniel Alexander
C: Matt Costello (two-way), Amidah Brima

Prediction: 905 in 3.