Jonas Valanciunas has brought the thunder in these playoffs. As an overbearing presence on the glass, and a vicious roller to the basket, the Raptors fourth-year big man has used the series against the Pacers to cement his place in the Raptors' long-term plans. Amazingly, Valanciunas may in fact be on the firmest footing with the franchise out of any member of the Raptors core given DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry's inability to show up for a series they needed to shine in.
Valanciunas did his best work early in the series against Indiana, using his beastly proportions to out-muscle and overpower the Pacers' incomplete set of bigs. He's maintained steady production throughout the six games, really only having an off night on the stat sheet in the Raptors thrilling Game 5 win. But while his line of 14.2 points, 11.3 points and 1.5 blocks in 26 minutes per game suggests that Valanciunas has been a consistently effective presence against the Pacers, there has been some slippage in his game away from the ball in the last three games.
Game 6 saw Indiana smother the Raptors with defense. Toronto shot just 36.7 percent, went 9-of-29 from long distance and turned the ball over 17 times. Credit needs to be given to the Pacers -- those numbers have been a recurring theme throughout much of the series. Indiana, after being punished by the Lowry-Valanciunas pick-and-roll in the first half of Friday's game, made the adjustment to hedge aggressively and dare Lowry to throw contested and difficult passes through thickets of arms. On top of that, Paul George turned in yet another impenetrable effort on DeRozan.
That said, the Raptors didn't make thing easy on themselves. In particular, Valanciunas was abysmal at setting the types of stout screens needed to spring DeRozan, Lowry and the rest of the Raptors ball-handlers free of their oppressive defenders. While Valanciunas has been a bruiser in the grimy areas near the basket, he's been unacceptably dainty when venturing away from the rim to open up looks for his teammates, with Game 6 serving as his laziest showing yet.
It's not easy to break the tether between Paul George, George Hill and the guys they're defending. Both are masters are sliding over screens or instantly recovering when forced to go under. George's ability to apparate through screens like a 6-foot-9 ghost is the main reason DeRozan has been operating from the confines of a straight-jacket for most of this series.
You can't excuse DeRozan for how awful he was in Game 6, or Lowry for how wayward his shot was. But the Raptors guards were left in the lurch far too often by Valanciunas's inconsequential attempts to slow the momentum of George and Hill.
The third quarter is where it all started to fall apart for the Raptors. Indiana made that aforementioned change in how they defended the pick-and-roll, and Valanciunas helped the Pacers execute it by setting screens like this one:
Or this one:
Or these two:
The Joseph three-pointer on that possession was purely born out of Lowry's playmaking brilliance -- Valanciunas couldn't even muster half an ass on either of those attempts to bump Hill.
Toronto is at it's best when it's screening hard and giving its dynamic guards room to move, and just as importantly -- time to make sound decisions. In the Raptors losses in this series, DeRozan and Lowry have made panicky passes and put up questionable shots as a result of an inability to shed their annoyingly awesome defenders.
Per NBA.com, the the Raptors three wins, their centre duo of Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo have combined for 18 screen assists, as opposed to just 10 in the three losses (only two of which belong to Valanciunas). That disparity is by no means the only reason the Raptors have disappointed so routinely in this series, but it is indicative of how the Raptors can be the best version of themselves.
Game 5 featured eight screen assists from Biyombo (6) and Valanciunas (2), and it happened to be the game in which DeRozan finally exploded after being stifled by the lack of imagination in the Raptors offensive sets. It was hard-hitting picks like this one from Biyombo on George that freed up DeRozan to do what he does best:
The easy way for the Raptors to ensure strong screens are being set in Game 7 would be to roll Biyombo out there for a more healthy minutes total. He's by far the best screen-setter on the Raptors. That would come at a price, though. Valanciunas has developed into such a deadly pick-and-roll target, that sitting him in lieu of Biyombo for huge stretches would erase one of the most dependable sources of offense for the Raptors in this series.
It's simplistic, but Valanciunas simply needs to be sturdier -- more Andrew Bogut-like, if you will -- when interfering with Indiana's perimeter defenders' pursuits of Lowry and DeRozan. Not only would that keep Valanciunas' offense on the floor, but it would free up Toronto's All-Stars to play with the same freedom they enjoyed so often in the regular season.
It's Game 7. It's time for Valanciunas to start crunching some bones.