The Toronto Raptors (1-1) surrendered home court advantage and nearly gave away – literally – Game 2 before pulling things out. But man, what a ride it’s been already and what a big week it’s been for the franchise.
The Raptors are relevant once again, thanks to some feisty, competitive play, a great fan base that has absolutely come through over two series-opening home games and a couple of viral happenings on and off the court.
In Game 2, Toronto got back to the bend-but-don’t-break style that helped them succeed during the regular season, showing warts (21 turnovers) and coughing up several leads before finally riding DeMar DeRozan’s 30 points (including 17 in the fourth) to a 100-95 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
Game 2 represented several role reversals from Saturday afternoon’s Game 1. Where Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce was the clutch hero of Game 1 after scoring nine points in the final 3:41, DeRozan was the heart of the Raptors’ attack on Tuesday night. Where the Nets struggled with the three-ball in a winning effort in the series opener (4-24), the Raps were even worse from long distance on Tuesday (2-16). Where Landry Fields was the only dressed Toronto reserve to not see the floor on Saturday, he played a critical role off the bench in Game 2 and appears primed to maintain that role as the series continues.
As the series shifts to Brooklyn on Friday night, it’s the constants across the first two games that should have Raptor fans cautiously encouraged (well, except for the 38 turnovers). Toronto has clearly established a rebounding advantage in the series, earning a 97-68 collective edge. That effort has been led by a come-into-his-own Jonas Valanciunas, who has 32 points and 32 rebounds through two games in which he has asserted himself as the best big man of the series.
The Core Guys
Nothing against a clearly-not-100% Amir Johnson and a not-ready-for-postseason-basketball Terrence Ross, but I’m talking about DeRozan, Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry here. Toronto’s three most important players, whose average age is just a tick over 24, have more than held their ground against the talented, veteran-laden Nets. DeRozan rallied back from a 3-13 playoff debut to make 12 of his 14 free throws en route to becoming the third Raptor (with Vince Carter and Chris Bosh) to join the 30-point postseason club. JV has been a force inside and has looked more confident than, perhaps, at any other point in his two-year NBA career. Lowry, meanwhile, hasn’t shot particularly well (11-29) and has contributed to the turnover problem (eight), but he continues to fill the stat sheet (36 points, 16 rebounds, 14 assists through two games) and to serve as the engine that makes his team go.
Toronto: Basketball Hotspot
I have to admit that I wasn’t in the house for Game 1. I was, however, watching from out of town on TV, which enabled me to see ESPN cameras pick up on the mass frenzy that was Maple Leaf Square along with an electric atmosphere inside the ACC. Basketball people in the know have long recognized Toronto as a city with great and knowledgeable fans, but this was the rare opportunity to showcase that passion on a national scale. Yes, the shot clock malfunction was embarrassing, but it didn’t take away from the prevailing message of the first two games at the ACC: Toronto isn’t just a hockey town, we are a basketball hotbed. Among the many standout fan moments from the opening games, my personal favourite was Pierce getting his headband thrown back at him – twice! – as he left the court after Game 1.
This one doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation, although it does warrant some acknowledgment of Brooklyn’s phenomenal half court defensive effort that has forced many of those turnovers. Instead, let me address the much-maligned refereeing through two games. Yes, the Nets certainly seem to be getting the lion’s share of the 50/50 calls (that is, calls that could go either way, such as charge/block calls and loose ball fouls). But it isn’t difficult to understand that vets like Perce and Kevin Garnett have earned some credibility among the officials, whereas still-emerging Raptors anchors DeRozan and Lowry both have a history of less-than-warm body language and pleasantries with refs. Officiating thus far in the series hasn’t been completely one-sided, but when it has, it has simply been slanted in favour of the team that’s earned it over time. The Raps may get there one day, but they aren’t there yet.
A quick countdown of the most random moments through two ACC games of this scrappy Raps/Nets first round series:
Can’t say he isn’t a man of the people.
5) The “Superfan”
Did this entertaining New York Times profile of Nav Bhatia inspire eccentric NBA fan Jimmy Goldstein to take in his first ever game in Toronto?
4) Drake’s Lint Roller
I know you’re the Global Ambassador and all, but I’m pretty sure no one is that worried about a couple of dust bunnies on your pants.
3) Toronto Sun Headlines
2) The Shot Clock Malfunction
Speaking of the Sun, Steve Simmons nailed it with his take on the Game 1 shot clock mess: “Tim Leiweke is nothing if not about image: The messup at the ACC Saturday must drive an A-personality like him CRAZY”.
1) “F@$% Brooklyn”
Brooklyn has gotten three minutes of magic from Pierce, consistency from Joe Johnson and some explosiveness from Deron Williams. Otherwise, it's hard to pinpoint any significant offensive highlights from the Nets through two games. Most encouraging for Brooklyn, other than a return home, is the knowledge that their three-point shooting and fourth quarter scoring can't help but improve heading into games three and four. Keep an eye on Shaun Livingston, Game 2 contributor Andrei Kirilenko and possibly even Marcus Thornton as secondary guys who could step up to ease some of the scoring pressure on Pierce, Johnson and Williams. Another encouraging sign for Brooklyn: Jason Kidd hasn't looked overmatched in his first playoff experience as a head coach.
The series will definitely be shifting back to Toronto next Wednesday night, with the conditions surrounding the game being tied entirely to the next two match-ups in Brooklyn. Will one team have their back to the wall already, or will Game 5 serve as a critical 2-2 series tiebreaker? Game 3 gets underway on Friday night (TSN, 7:00pm).