Personally, the brightest takeaway from the NBA’s playoff opener in Toronto on Satruday, amidst malfunctioning shot clocks, fowl-mouthed general managers, and irksome newspaper headlines was this: the Air Canada Centre and Raptor fans proved to a national audience just how passionate and electrifying they are, not can be. Seriously, the mid-game camera shots of the thousands of fans jumbled in unison cheering-on the home team from outside the arena looked like a college atmosphere, except it was in Toronto on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April. In other words, Toronto fans are pretty great. I just hope people don’t forget that as often as they do.
More importantly, there was a basketball game played between Toronto and the Brooklyn Nets, and after the crowd, I start to run out of compliments for the game one 94-87 Raptors loss. Let me start with this, the best part about game one is exactly that, it’s game one. Toronto is guaranteed at least three more games to fix a reasonable number of issues. Panic spreads faster than confidence in the postseason; don’t let game one of a series guarantee anything in game two, three, or four.
Second, nobody in Toronto is facing more pressure (as he should be) in this series than Dwane Casey. Bad coaches (which Casey is not) typically don’t make it into the playoffs, mostly because they coach talent-less teams. However if they do, it becomes clear to a large audience almost immediately that, ‘Hey, wait a minute! This guy can’t coach!’
Casey’s not a bad coach; he’s a really good coach who has improved in play calling, matchup manipulation, and time management. But on Saturday, all three of those areas that he has diligently improved upon, hurt the Raptors. The point with the good coach, bad coach stuff is people who watched Saturday that see the mistakes Casey made are going to assume he’s still not a very good coach, and for better or for (often) worse the playoffs expose a coach for what he is or isn’t, and Casey was not his best Saturday.
Example of poor play calling: why was DeMar DeRozan continuing to have plays run for him throughout the duration of the second half? I understand Casey does not command every play call and that most of Toronto’s main sets involve DeRozan coming off screens on either wing turning into options of: pick-and-roll, isolation, or ball reversal.
I get that Toronto cannot just totally ditch its main offensive infrastructure and experiment with uncomforting play designs in the playoffs, but DeRozan obviously didn’t have it Saturday. Everyone has an off night, and more than just that – DeRozan saw hard double-teams consistently. Casey needs to make clear to his young developing star that come playoff basketball time you have to work simply to catch the ball. I liked that DeRozan still got to the line eight times, but if Brooklyn devotes as much attention to DeRozan in game two as they did game one, the offensive game plan must be prepared to shift gears.
Unrelated to DeRozan’s ineffectiveness was the development of an occurrence I for one overlooked, and should be ridiculed for making the mistake of doing but – The Truth was The Truth. Never doubt Paul Pierce in the playoffs, I need know better by now, but before game one I truly thought both Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson should be able to guard Pierce. To me, Pierce was an after-thought before game one, but now he’s the main cause for concern for game two. As nice a spark as Patterson was for T-Dot off the bench offensively, he’s overwhelmed guarding Pierce.
Terrence Ross being in foul trouble all game hurt some of Casey’s defensive flexibility options for lineups, but for certain neither Johnson nor Patterson can be on the floor in late-game situations defensively with Pierce on the floor. With Patterson, it is somewhat understandable and unsurprising, as he’s never been known for his defense, but Johnson was a disappointment in more way than one. If Johnson can’t guard Pierce, then that’s the reality of it and you adjust. But how is Johnson against Pierce on the block not an advantage for Toronto, then? Amir isn’t a typical back-to-the-basket type of power forward, but if he can’t produce more than two points with Pierce guarding him, Patterson will see more minutes than Johnson every game this series.
The biggest criticism I have from game one is the most evident shortcoming of Casey’s flaws, time management. Toronto had called a timeout previous to Kyle Lowry making a basket with 34 seconds left and the score 88-83. Brooklyn inbounded, and another 12 seconds went off the clock before Lowry fouled Deron Williams, where he hit both free throws to put the game out of reach with Brooklyn up seven with 22 second left. HOW is Lowry not aware that with his team down five with 34 seconds left that fouling basically immediately is what needs to happen 100 times out of 100 times in that situation? As much as it pains me to say, classic Raptors.
All in all, game one was actually a lot closer than it should have been. Brooklyn missed 20 3s, with about eight or nine of those looks being WIDE open. If it weren’t for Jonas Valanciunas’ inspired effort, game one could have easily been a blowout. The young Raptors are going to be forced to grow up and learn on the fly a little more rapidly then maybe they would have preferred, but that comes with the territory of playoff basketball. Mainly, don’t panic after one game is the biggest thing. Far too much basketball remains, and sometimes when a young team is forced to grow up quick, they respond better. Game two has my attention, that much I know.