The sun shone bright on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Toronto. The fans, both inside and outside of the ACC, were raucous -- as was Masai Ujiri. Playoff basketball had returned to the city for the first time in 6 years; an occasion well-worth celebrating. Unfortunately, three hours after tip-off, fans left the arena without much to celebrate.
The fans came out in force yesterday, but the Toronto Raptors, figuratively speaking, didn't show up.
The Raps, with a few individual exceptions, were putrid on offense all game long. They shot 39% from the field (34% from 3-point range), and turned the ball over 17 times. DeMar DeRozan, despite claiming earlier in the week that playing in the playoffs wasn't rocket science, looked all kinds of nervous; sort of like a guy struggling to understand an aerospace engineering textbook. DeRozan gave the Raps very little offensively -- he hurt the team on offense, in fact -- going 3-13 from the field, scoring just 14 points.
Except for some ill-timed fouls, Terrence Ross was no-existant at both ends, while Amir Johnson, predictably ineffective against Paul Pierce at power-forward, barely played in the second half. His health, or lack of it, remains a huge worry for the team.
Okay, some positives...
Kyle Lowry was great; 22 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists, and copious amounts of effort. For most of the game the Raps' best option on offense was Lowry getting his head down and bulldozing his way to the basket. If that's the best option all series long Lowry's going to get burned out and/or hurt, and the Raps are going to lose. But credit to Lowry for recognizing that not much else was working and he had to take matters into his own hands.
Jonas Valanciunas was very impressive, and became only the second Raptor to score a double-double on his playoff debut -- the other being T-Mac. The big Lithuanian finished with 17 points, 18 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He missed a couple easy looks in the second half, but by and large, he played exactly the kind of game the Raptors needed from him; big, strong, and composed. The Nets couldn't deal with him when he got deep in the post.
Other key guys needed to step-up, however. And other than Greivis Vasquez (18 points, and 8 assists off the bench), and the aforemetioned Lowry and Valanciunas, there wasn't much else on offense for the Raps.
For the Nets, Deron Williams and
7-time All-Star Joe Johnson were huge. Williams had 24 points and generally got to whatever spot on the floor he wanted. Johnson, somewhat predictably, gave the Raps fits with his size and length, backing down the likes of DeRozan, Ross, and the awful John Salmons in the post, and either scoring or kicking the ball out to open shooters. Iso-Joe finished with 24 points and 8 boards.
And then there was Paul Pierce -- the same Paul Pierce the Toronto Sun, perhaps ill-advisedly, labelled a dinosaur on yesterday's front page (he definitely saw that headline, by the way). Pierce was defended well in the second-half by Patrick Patterson initially, but as he so often does, he got hot down the stretch. With the Raps up by a point with 5 minutes remaining, after a Vasquez triple, Pierce scored 9-straight points; a massive 3, a drive to the bucket after two pump-fakes (and a travel), an open jumper off a Kevin Garnett screen, and finally, a classic turnaround jumper from 18-feet.
Pierce's late game surge turned a one point deficit into a seven point lead (88-81) for the Nets.
This was the Paul Pierce we were all terrified of. The Paul Pierce who, at this stage of his career, saunters his way through games -- at times, inconspicuous for two or three quarters -- but is a guy who can still get hot, and get off a good look from anywhere on the court when the game is on the line.
But setting aside The Truth's heroics for a moment, the real truth, as it pertains to the Raps, is that they were lucky to still be in the contest when Pierce finally went off.
After a rough first quarter defensively, the Raps picked things up at that end of the floor (it helped that the Nets missed 14 straight 3s) but on offense they were horrible for most of the afternoon. The half-court offense was especially putrid. If the Raps weren't forcing up contested jumpers early in the shot-clock (or stop-watch), they were taking an absolute age to get into their offensive sets, or they were turning the ball over. Usually both. At points in the game Lowry and Vasquez gave the team a spark, but more often than not -- and particularly in the last 5 minutes -- the offense was totally stagnant.
Execution late in close games has been a massive problem for the Raps all season. What happened yesterday may have been a result of nerves -- tensing up on the biggest of stages -- but it looked an awful lot like what we've witnessed from the Raps in many tight games this year.
And while the Raps' late-game execution problem raised its ugly head, most of the match-up issues that the Nets presented in theory, manifested themselves in practice yesterday as well.
Amir couldn't guard Paul Pierce. Shaun Livingston was able to shoot over every back-court player Casey threw at him. Joe Johnson was able to back-down undersized small-forwards and shooting-guards in the post. And the Nets' crafty defenders were able to generate a plethora of turnovers, leading to a plethora of points.
Generally speaking, the Nets looked like that grizzled, playoff-ready team some feared they might be -- willing to grind it out in the half-court at both ends. They are who many of the experts said they were.
But all is not lost. Far from it.
Casey is going to have to make some major adjustments for Tuesday night's Game 2. There's no doubt about that. But surely DeRozan won't be as terrible as he was tonight. Surely Ross will offer more. Surely the team will take care of the ball a little better. Perhaps I'm overly-optimisitc, but at half-time the Raps had as many turnovers as field-goals, and were still in the game -- they were leading the game with 5 minutes left, in fact.
The Nets have more to offer, but the Raps certainly have another couple gears to move through. And they'll have no choice but to move through those gears on Tuesday night. A repeat performance in Game 2 and this series will effectively be over.
- The Raps had success going to Valanciunas early, and they'll need to continue doing that in this series. The Nets don't have too many players inside, Garnett included, who can deal with Jonas when he gets deep post position. He was excellent yesterday.
- Again, DeRozan was awful. Just forced shot, after forced shot. That type of offense doesn't work well in general, and it certainly won't work against the Nets' half-court defense in the playoffs.
- The Raps were at their best when they pushed the ball in transition. The Nets don't like back-peddling on defense and the Raps can't afford to let their defenders get set, because right now their half-court offense isn't good enough.
- The Nets went cold from 3 in the second-half, until Pierce hit that huge dagger. But the Raps were losing shooters left, right, and centre in the first-quarter. Deron Williams was the lucky recipient of those bad rotations.
- The Nets, with their back-court size, were able to create mis-matches all over the floor. These were somewhat expected, and Dwane Casey didn't adjust quickly enough, in my opinion.
- Every time the Raps got close in the second half, Shaun Livingston seemed to come up with a big bucket.
- The shot clocks died in the 3rd quarter leading to a farcical situation where the public address announcer was left with the job of counting down the clock, while staring at a stop-watch. Come on ACC, act like you've been here before.
- If you watched the ESPN broadcast (like I did) Jon Barry will make you pine for Leo Rautins or Jack Armstrong.
- Contrary to the opinions of some of the fan-base, the officials didn't cost the Raps this game. The Raps cost the Raps this game -- there were bad calls for both teams. I feel like a segment of the fan-base is ready to shout 'the world is against us' every time a semi-bad call goes against this team. This persecution complex is getting a little boring.