The Atlanta Hawks gut-punched eager Raptors fans yesterday with the report that they had removed Paul Millsap from the trade market. With one Woj Bomb went the hopes of an in-season acquisition of the third wheel Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been in desperate need of this season.
In Tuesday’s 114-106 win over the ankle-nipping Boston Celtics, a potential in-house solution revealed itself. Jonas Valanciunas, in the midst of a rocky stretch scarred by blown coverages against stretchy opposing bigs, turned in one of his most important and best games of the season - maybe even his Raptors career.
Al Horford is the prototypical weapon to throw at Valanciunas in hopes of exploiting his plodding, ground-bound defensive style. Boston’s prized free agent signing had victimized Valanciunas before - both during his past-life with the Hawks and earlier this season. Toronto’s 101-94 win in Boston a month ago was achieved in large part by small-ball looks with Patrick Patterson manning the five. Valanciunas’ difficulty hanging with Boston’s roaming big men relegated him to 24 minutes, just nine in the second half.
Isaiah Thomas’ presence (he missed the December 9th game) and the terrific Thomas-Horford pick-and-roll served as threats to JV’s workload on Tuesday.
There were certainly mistakes and awkward attempts at recovery by Valanciunas early, but for the most part, he helped to steady the Raptors’ defense. The bleeding was at its most profuse when Valanciunas sat. A makeshift bench unit to start the second quarter (the rotations were thrown out of whack by Patterson FINALLY getting to start) erased the accomplishments of an excellent defensive showing in the opening 12 minutes. With Valanciunas playing just two minutes in the second through a combination of regularly scheduled rest and foul trouble, the Celtics dropped 37 points on 16-of-24 shooting. When on the court, Valanciunas posted an uncharacteristic 94.1 defensive rating.
That number looks extra impressive when you consider it wasn’t even propped up by Patrick Patterson the way it normally would be. Typically, Valanciunas’ success on defense is tied to Toronto’s best big man defender. On Tuesday, Patterson, still not 100 percent according to Dwane Casey, was largely invisible. He shared just 14 minutes of floor time with Valanciunas, and posted a personal defensive rating of 110.4 in his first start of the year.
In the fourth quarter, Valanciunas rode shotgun to DeRozan. Trailing by nine with six minutes remaining, DeRozan brought back glimpses of the opening two weeks of the season. Without Avery Bradley in the lineup, the Celtics had no way of diverting DeRozan away from his desired spots on the floor.
Post-ups against the puny Isaiah Thomas, tough turnaround jumpers and finishes over a decidedly non-vertical Kelly Olynyk translated into 12 fourth quarters points on 5-of-6 shooting. Before that game-swinging personal run, Toronto’s leading scoring notched another 19 in the third to keep his team afloat.
DeMar is, umm, not afraid of Kelly Olynyk at the rim.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 11, 2017
DeRozan even hit something called a “Driving Floating Bank Jump Shot” by NBA.com’s play-by-play tracker that brought the Raptors within one with just three-plus minutes remaining.
“DeRozan was really able to get into the teeth of our defense and made those tough shots,” said Horford after the game. “I think that took something from us.”
Augmenting DeRozan’s impossible shot-making was Valanciunas, who collected 10 of his career-high 23 rebounds over Boston’s significantly smaller and less-strong bigs. He finished the night with 11 offensive rebounds, five more than the entire Celtics team could muster in the battle of the league’s two crummiest defensive rebounding teams.
Raptors grabbed 38.4 percent of all available offensive rebounds tonight. Not going to win many games when that happens.— Brian Robb (@CelticsHub) January 11, 2017
46% with Horford in the game, especially rough. https://t.co/ouF4mVi4Vt— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) January 11, 2017
He capped the night with a pair of blocks on Thomas and Gerald Green. Again ... it was an out-of-the-ordinary night for Valanciunas.
Expecting him to replicate Tuesday’s performance routinely is a tall ask. One great effort against a seemingly tough matchup is one thing; overcoming his general lack of mobility to make him playable in all situations is quite another.
Casey seems to understand that the Raptors haven’t suddenly unearthed the third option that will elevate his team’s ceiling. But as starting points go, Tuesday’s showing was a hell of a foundation for Valanciunas to build off of.
“Is he a finished product?” Casey asked himself post-game.
“No. But tonight he was.”