The Washington Wizards can scour their tomes and recount their incantations, but after getting manhandled in Game 2, one thing is clear: There is no magic spell that can save them from the dominant colossus that is Jonas Valanciunas.
Everyone who’s watched the Toronto Raptors closely this season knows how much Valanciunas has improved, thanks to the new style of offense, the defensive scheme, and his own hard work. But that didn’t stop concerns from floating to the forefront of people’s minds when the Raptors drew the Wizards for the first round of the playoffs, despite Washington’s interior vulnerability. Would Valanciunas be able to handle Marcin Gortat, whom he’s had trouble with before? Would he be able to stay on the floor defensively when the Wiz play small?
If Game 1 began to answer these questions, it was Game 2 that delivered a thorough and emphatic response.
The Wizards’ pick-and-roll defense has been horrendous, sending traps at the ball handler (especially when it’s Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan) over and over despite all of Toronto’s ball handlers being able to make the correct pass out of the traps to the roll man. With a big staying high to trap, that leaves minor protection at the rim, and Valanciunas has been an absolute terror rolling into the paint, catching the ball and fighting through what little resistance is left in front of him to score.
It didn’t take long for Scott Brooks to sub Gortat out of the game, since he was unable to stop Valanciunas defensively and was being stifled by the Lithuanian on the other end. Instead, Brooks opted to play small with Markieff Morris at the five, a look that gave Valanciunas fits in Game 1.
Not this time.
Immediately after Gortat was pulled, Valanciunas took advantage of the lack of rim protection and faked a hand-off before bolting straight to the rim, finishing elegantly with an Iceman-style finger roll over two defenders.
With Valanciunas outplaying Gortat, there’s simply no one on the Wizards who can stop him defensively—he’s just too big and strong. One of the major advantages the Raptors have in this series is size, and they need to leverage it wherever possible. They had some trouble establishing that in Game 1 (Morris had a 44.3 deterrent factor when guarding JV, for example), but Valanciunas was all over it last night, punishing small lineups without so much as a second thought (Morris’ deterrent factor rose to 96.1).
It wasn’t all pick-and-roll, either. The Raptors made sure to feed JV down on the block when possible, and there were several times where he wound up with a favourable mismatch (although, to be fair, most matchups in the post are favourable for him) due to some scrambling defense.
Here, he gets Bradley Beal on a mismatch off of a broken play. Recognizing it at once, he takes a single dribble backwards before spinning to his right, drawing the foul and gently tossing the ball up and into the basket like his defender isn’t even there. It’s like watching Andre the Giant post-up Tyrion Lannister.
To add insult to injury, we were also treated to our first postseason Valanciunas three-pointer on a pick-and-pop.
Not all of Valanciunas’ offensive damage came from scoring, however. He was also great handing off the ball and making some well-timed passes.
On this play, he catches the rock *15 feet from the basket off of a DeRozan pass. Waiting patiently, he bounces the ball to DeRozan as the latter curls around him, opening up an angle to the rim. DeRozan then uses his body to protect the ball from Kelly Oubre, laying it in easily with his left hand.
Valanciunas was a monster setting screens, too—he led the Raptors with four screen assists. Here, as Lowry kicks the ball over to DeRozan on the weak side, he moves down to screen John Wall and, as Wall fights to get past him, DeRozan slips by, now with the option to either shoot, kick it to Lowry at the top of the arc, or pass it off to the rolling Valanciunas. He decides on the first option (he was red-hot at the time), and drills the midrange look.
Perhaps even more impressive than his offensive supremacy was Valanciunas’ defense, and it was the reason he got to stay on the floor as long as he did against Washington’s smaller lineups. With Toronto’s perimeter defenders mostly doing a good job sticking to guys at the arc, things became easier for JV inside, as he simply had to fall back into protecting the rim (though he was also better at closing out on shots Morris would take farther out), blocking off any routes to the hoop like a human wall.
On this play, with a lethargic Gortat in the game (who can’t space beyond the midrange), things are easy despite Lowry’s failure to keep Otto Porter on the perimeter. Valanciunas, already down low, simply steps up to meet him at the rim, staying vertical and taking the ball away as Porter tries to push it past him.
The Raptors have done well to guard the Wizards in transition so far this series as well, and Valanciunas was a big part of that in this game. He hustled back whenever he could, and on the plays he was at the rim, opponents were met with that wall-like presence.
Toronto was simply at its best when Valanciunas was in this game. He led the team in contested shots (12) and box outs (16), and had a personal defensive rating of 94, second only to Serge Ibaka. The starters continued to be great as a unit, posting a 17.7 net rating in 17 minutes, and when they replaced OG Anunoby with Delon Wright for four minutes, they achieved an unfathomable defensive rating of 44.4.
Just think about that for a second: A lineup with Valanciunas and Ibaka, who have had their struggles together, achieved a defensive rating of 44.4. That’s madness!
Valanciunas finished the game with 19 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocked shots on 72.7 per cent shooting in 23 minutes, and led the Raptors with a 138.5 offensive rating and overall 44.5 net rating.
It was somewhat surprising that Dwane Casey was unable to find any minutes for him in the fourth quarter of Game 2, especially when the Raptors went stagnant for a bit early in the quarter and their once-massive lead was cut to single digits. But Casey chose to stick with a smaller group featuring Ibaka at the five (who has also been magnificent defensively), once he switched to it and found that it was working, and never looked back.
In the end, Valanciunas’ non-appearance in the fourth didn’t matter. The Raptors did what they needed to and won Game 2. What does matter, however, is now Casey knows that he can play his center pretty much whenever in this series so long as he’s engaged, and that he’s an unstoppable offensive force the Wizards simply don’t have an answer for. It matters, too, that Valanciunas has realized he can exercise his will over Washington in a way he was hesitant to do at times in Game 1.
So the Wizards can continue to search, continue to flip through the yellow pages of ancient texts, continue to try and find some manner of sorcery that will slow Toronto’s Lithuanian colossus. But time is running out. And as for the Raptors?
Well, they don’t believe in magic.