Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
Kaza Keane, backup point guard for the Raptors 905, likes to keep it simple. On game days, he comes to shootaround in the morning and gets his shots up before providing his body with the sustenance he needs to play the pesky mosquito-like defense he’s established his reputation with. He then heads back to his place to take a nap. As game time approaches and the adrenaline starts coursing through his veins, he soothes his mind with a book.
Right now, that book is ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.’ “It’s a good read,” Keane can attest now that he’s halfway through. “I like taking stuff like that and applying it to my life.”
Without giving too much away, the essence of the book is about cutting out the crap in your life to ensure you’re the one in control. When LeBron James played for the Miami Heat, he was often found reading books from The Godfather to The Hunger Games. “Reading strengthens my mind and instills in me a pre-game calm,” he said when asked about the benefits of doing so.
Building a championship team requires a perfect recipe that’s just as difficult to replicate as it is to foil with contrast. As each ingredient is debated over with regards to the merit of what it adds individually and how it interacts in unison with the others, it tilts the equations ever so slightly in one direction or the other.
Yet, even with all that attention to detail and meticulous planning, there are a number of external factors that can muck up a great plan, or leave an equation unbalanced. On an individual scale, players have their own balance to find as well. They have their routines and try to formulate what’s the best approach for them to succeed, working on their fitness, sleep habits and mental well-being.
Kennedy Meeks, starting center for the Raptors 905 this past season, described being extremely superstitious in college, wearing the same shoes or changing them depending on how he played game-to-game, doing the same with sleeves, and the kicker, changing mouth guards after a game he struggled in. He’s cut all of that out now, something aided by the routine instilled by the 905.
“Win or lose, same routine everyday,” Meeks said. “I keep it the same now because changing too much can mess you up, too.”
Just a season ago, the Raptors 905 went into their opponent’s building looking to take a Game 1 series lead in the Finals. Bruno Caboclo opened the scoring with a three-pointer from the top of the arc, and capped a 10-1 start with a clever bounce feed to Pascal Siakam inside for a dunk. For a team riding a 12-game winning streak to finish the regular season 39-11 and coast through the playoffs, it looked business as usual.
It was anything but thereafter, though, as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers stormed back to tie the game and take the lead. Trying to match the venom of a Rockets-esque Rio Grande Valley attack, head coach Jerry Stackhouse tried — what he admitted later — was too much. He matched down, matched up, tried to slow down the tempo and speed it up. None of it worked.
Showing a sense of self-awareness, the former Tar Heel said he overthought things on the Zach Lowe podcast, and then went back to the principles that carried them all season the rest of the way. The 905 were able to drown out the noise and went on to win the next two games and the championship.
The subtle shift in mindset made possible by the acknowledgment of his own shortcomings is all the more admirable because of the environment the playoffs breed. One of the most difficult things to do in such a scenario where every play can cause an emotional reaction is to trust the process that got you there.
“It’s certainly tough,” Aaron Best said before the 905 took the court for Game 2 of the 2018 G League Finals. “Especially with the change of format where it’s pretty much win or go home. You’ve just got to trust in what you’re doing and what’s made you successful.”
Unlike a year ago when there was a best-of-three in each round of the D-League playoffs, the G League implemented a single-elimination format leading up to the Finals. Furthermore, despite finishing with the third-best record in the league, the 905 had to validate their playoff credentials by winning a play-in game because of a format that heavily favored division winners.
That only adds to the stress of every decision, something starting centre Kennedy Meeks understands all too well.
“I think that’s the hardest part about coaching, making those adjustments to potentially win or lose,” Meeks said. “We have a great coach, a great opportunity here with possibly two games left to get a big win here. It’s very important that we go out there with the right mindset and listen to coach and his execution. If we do all those things the right way, we’ll have the right result.”
Trailing the Finals series 1-0 once again, The 905 came out on their home floor eager to make a statement to the Austin Spurs. They jumped out to an early lead and with the Hershey Centre in the mood to be as boisterous as possible, but the Spurs were having none of it. Led by eventual Finals MVP Nick Johnson, they drowned out the noise and stuck to the task at hand.
They ran out comfortable 98-76 winners, holding the 905 to 2-of-27 shooting from deep, just 14 fourth quarter points, and doing to the home team what they had become so adept at over the past two seasons. Stackhouse had no complaints after the game, understanding that his team went about their business the way they did all season.
“Defensively, I thought we were good,” the Mississauga club’s head coach said after the game. “Other than them stepping up and making some tough shots, holding this team to under 100 points — this team scored 144 points in a game this season — so, still feel good about that but just wish we could have made a few more shots. Proud of our guys, I thought they left all that they had on the floor, that’s all you can ask for.”
The 905 trusted their process, and while it may have failed in terms of the final result at the final hurdle, it’s still what got them that far in the first place. There may have been calls to play with reckless abandon and get away from the strict defensive principles instilled in them all season, but they can walk away knowing they stopped in their tracks doing it their way.
It’s a lesson their parent club will be trying to emulate come Saturday as they look to extend a renewed playing style into the playoffs. There are times when they will be tested, when trusting the pass leads to missed shots and hesitation. That’s when they will have to stand up and show they are who they’ve shown all season, and not anyone else.