Technically, no game is ‘must-win’ until the stipulation requires the loser play not another game any further. When the Toronto Raptors lost game one at home to Brooklyn, the phrase ‘must-win’ began circulating around the Toronto blog-o-sphere quicker than Rob Ford crack smoking-related rumors. Panic will subdue a young team like Toronto with callous content, but after regaining form in game two’s 100-95 win evening the series 1-1 heading to Brooklyn, confidence is back in T Dot.
Undoubtedly, Toronto could have ill afforded going down 0-2 heading to Brooklyn, but game two was not a must-win for Toronto. This series was going to be a feeling-out process between two teams learning on-the-fly how to play playoff basketball together for the first time. I didn’t expect both games to be as closely entertaining as they ended up becoming, so that was a nice (or burdensome, depending how you look at it) surprise.
Before this series I thought the outcome would be Toronto in six, and I’m sticking to that, but I also thought that when Brooklyn did win that they’d be convincing beat downs because it seemed reasonable to think it’d take a couple games for Toronto to gain a sense of what playoff-style basketball is like. In all reality, the Nets could have trounced Toronto in both games (especially game one) but Brooklyn has gone yikes-mode from three at 22.9% (11/48) this series. Brooklyn’s saving grace has been anchored by their balanced defense.
In game two, the Raptors were still showing signs of a team very much in the learning process as evidenced by committing 21 turnovers, but the adjustments that were made in the game plan were executed brilliantly. What I saw in game two I thought would take until game three at least. Maturation before our very eyes.
For starters, All-Star DeMar DeRozan sure forgot about going 3-13 from the field in his playoff debut real quick, huh? Although, the first three quarters of game two were strikingly reminiscent of his game one output – my oh my was he tremendous in the fourth quarter of game two. 17 of his game high 30 points came in the final quarter, DeRozan was finding space and gliding to the rim repetitiously. Fourth quarter DeMar DeRozan was the DeMar DeRozan Raptor fans’ had familiarized themselves to watching all season.
Based off talent alone, I thought the Raptors should win at least two games in this series, coaching and home/away being irrelevant. Game two was not one of those games. I thought screening within the offense sharpened considerably and DeRozan in particular decisively attacked at his man when he caught the ball. The pace might have seemed a little sped-up watching in real time (it did to me anyway), but the Raptors actually slowed down their pace in game two in a much more controlled tempo.
Plus, a major contribution from Amir Johnson in game two was essential. Finishing with 16 points and nine boards along with a +12 +/- in 36 minutes, while playing dynamite defense on Paul Pierce was the type of effort from Johnson that could ultimately swing the series in Toronto’s favor for good. The Raptors don’t expect to get as much as they did offensively from Johnson as they did in game two, but if he continues to play defense at the level he did Tuesday night then Brooklyn will be forced to readjust their small-ball lineup.
My favorite move by head coach Dwane Casey was to cut the Raptors rotation down to eight guys – going with only Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and Landry Fields (come on, who saw Landry Fields contributing big-time minutes coming?!) off the bench. Playoff rotations are traditionally slimmed down to an eight-man rotation, and Casey should stick with the eight he used in game two. Vasquez and Patterson combined for 23 points, while Fields’ defense and +8 in 17 minutes jolted the Raps.
Jonas Valanciunas posted another double-double with 15 points and 14 boards, willfully taking advantage of Brooklyn’s woefully thin front line. Jonas’ coming-out party isn’t a surprise to anyone who watched him for the past month leading into the playoffs, his hustle combined with a seven-foot frame and high-end talent present truly special ability that he’s only starting to tap into.
Overall, game two for Toronto was an encouraging performance and was the type of bounce-back effort that a good team is supposed to make. When Toronto is clicking on all cylinders (and they’ve shown signs), there’s no chance for Brooklyn in this series. Toronto’s the more talented team, and I always believe in talent winning-out over anything else. I could see games three and four being split, but Toronto in six is still the prediction.