There's a funny phenomenon in the locker room with Jonas Valanciunas. He's a jokester, a bit of a rabble rouser; the kind of guy who'll still pull out a Borat impression if pressed for a laugh. (He's also not above prop comedy.) He emerged last night with a bandage on his back and when I asked him about it he said, straight-faced, "I got shot." Well then. Everyone knows about Lucas Nogueira's live wire antics, but few get the full Jonas experience.
That's because once the cameras flip on, Jonas usually comes off as reserved, more soft spoken. His answers are circular and often return to the same tropes used by most professional athletes -- he's just trying to play hard, he's working for his teammates, he just wants to win. You know the drill. It would be easy to disregard Valanciunas in this venue as just another blank slate big man. (Raptors fans have some experience in that department.) But as these playoffs continue to prove, Toronto becomes a different team when Jonas is expressing himself on the court. After last night's ugly, weird and near disastrous 96-92 overtime victory of the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Conference Semi-Finals, it was Valanciunas, not the team's leaders Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who was the difference maker.
Now in the third post-season of his career, Valanciunas is averaging 14.9 points, 12.1 rebounds (including a whopping 4.6 on the offensive end), 1.6 blocks, 1.0 steals and, hey, 0.9 assists over nine games. He's also shooting 54.5 percent and playing in a career-high 29.2 playoff minutes. For stretches of the Raptors' opening round series against Indiana, it looked like Valanciunas was ready to devour everyone -- on the block, from the elbow, on the glass, in the stands. Now two games into this series against Miami, and it's clear that he's ready to do that again. In fact, it often feels like the only thing standing in Jonas' way are the power dynamics on his own team.
Last night's Game 2 was ugly. The Raptors shot 41 percent from the field and 22 percent from three; the Heat had 21 turnovers, including an inexplicable 11 in the first quarter. Neither team topped 100 points despite the extra five minute frame. The final possession of the fourth quarter involved Lowry airballing a deep 3-ball. There were a lot of heads shaking in disgust.
For the Raptors, the driving forces for all this ugliness were, surprise, Lowry and DeRozan once again. For the latter, we were treated to the usual array of poorly timed long twos and questionable play-making decisions. The former invoked a lot of concerned hand-wringing. DeRozan finished the game with 20 points on 24 shots, which is less than efficient. (DeMar also somehow went 1-for-7 from the free throw line, which could be blamed on the thumb wrap he was forced to wear.) Lowry, meanwhile, climbed part way out of the psychological hole he's dug for himself with an 18 point, 6 assist game that saw him hit back-to-back huge jumpers in regulation to push the Raptors' late lead. There was something almost Sisyphean in Lowry's struggle last night; it was hard not to root for him (even after that inexplicable air ball at the end of regulation). The Raptors need these two to figure it out.
While that was one considerable side of the game -- the ongoing psycho-drama in the Raptors' backcourt -- there was a flip side, a fun, rollicking, celebratory element that we only get to see some of the time. You're already nodding your head because you know where this is going. This side involved Valanciunas.
After a first half that saw the Raptors back their way into a 48-41 lead, Valanciunas had a mere four points on three shots. His presence on defense was noteworthy, and it was clear he and Heat centre Hassan Whiteside were, for lack of a better phrase, getting into it. Jonas even had two assists in the opening 24 minutes which is not nothing for the big man. Still, it felt like the Raptors were leaving something on the table, or if you prefer a different idiom: Toronto had something still in the clip with Jonas' quiet first half.
The third quarter saw even less Jonas usage and, coincidently, a score that flipped to the Heat's favour (65-63) with 12 minutes (and an overtime) to go. Valanciunas got zero shots in the third quarter as DeRozan went 3-for-8, Lowry went 1-for-5, and even folk hero Norman Powell went 0-for-3. Jonas was the only Raptors to escape the quarter with a neutral plus/minus. He was zero for the quarter -- which is both symbolic and incredibly telling. We girded ourselves for the fourth.
Here's where a funny thing happened: Jonas was dominant. In the fourth, the big man potted nine points on 4-for-5 shooting (including one beautiful outside jumper), grabbed five rebounds (including three offensive against human monster Whiteside) and even added a pair of steals. Jonas had another bucket in OT -- and another steal -- to help seal the win. In those final 17 minutes (of which he played just shy of 16), Valanciunas was +11. When the Raptors offense stalled, he was there to bail it out. And with Bismack Biyombo ineffective, Jonas was there to anchor the defense as well. Despite barely touching the ball for three quarters, Valanciunas was the answer the Raptors needed.
Afterwards in the locker room, Valanciunas was the last to emerge. DeRozan and Lowry had already spoken from the podium about the game and their teammate's impact. "He did that, with us not really running any plays for him," noted DeRozan, unironically. "He came through big. He was definitely the reason why we won the game."
Jonas, meanwhile, joked around a bit, and reflected on accidentally almost crushing Dwyane Wade; just before the cameras flipped on, he called out about a shoe horn again. You wouldn't have guessed he had just saved his team's season. This was just Jonas being Jonas. Then the camera lights flicked on and it was his old Chance the Gardener routine.
Jonas, why did the offense get bogged down?
"You know, you go through up and downs. Maybe we got stuck a bit in the third quarter, but end of the story we were pretty good."
Jonas, what allowed you to take over in the fourth after a quiet three quarters?
"You gotta just read the game, you can't be taking all the shots. One day you have three shots and then all of a sudden the ball just falls into your hands. You gotta keep playing. We're playing a team sport, not an individual sport."
Jonas, how much do you enjoy it?
"I'm just enjoying playing basketball. That's my life. I enjoy playing basketball. I enjoy winning. I enjoy winning small battles, scoring, getting those rebounds, that makes me go."
There you have it. The Raptors have tied the series at 1-1.