Sports Basketball

NBA PLAYOFFS

No Jonas Valanciunas means no chance for Raptors

By Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun

Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas (17) runs into Miami Heat centre Hassan Whiteside (21) during NBA playoff action in Toronto on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas (17) runs into Miami Heat centre Hassan Whiteside (21) during NBA playoff action in Toronto on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

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When Jonas Valanciunas crashed hard to the court at the American Airlines Arena in Miami two Saturdays ago, with him went any real chance the Raptors would have to seriously compete against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We didn’t know that at the time. We pretty much know it now.

We didn’t know the extent of Valanciunas’ sprained right ankle then — and we’re still not privy to the details — but we do know this Raptors team seems at a loss to find itself without its 7-foot anchor.

In a variety of ways, the loss of Valanciunas has altered so much of what the Raptors do and who they are. The balance of the team has been off against the Cavs. And often, when you take away an appendage as valuable as Valanciunas, that kind of team imbalance is possible.

It becomes contagious, in a way. You don’t just lose your centre and your low-post scorer. You lose your way. Your rotation is off. Your scoring is off. Your ability to play a low-post game is off. Your bench, one of the real strengths of this team that Masai Ujiri built, is way off.

And already, your best player hasn’t been your best player, so the absence of the emerging Valanciunas grows more significant by the day.

In the two games in Cleveland, the Raptors were outscored 106-61 in the paint. That’s a 45-point deficit from two games in the Eastern Conference final, lost by a combined total of 50 points.

In the two games in Cleveland, the Cavaliers starting lineup outscored the Raptors starting lineup by 60 points, 156-96.

In the two games in Cleveland, the Cavs outrebounded the Raptors 91-61.

Would all of this change with a healthy Valanciunas? Not entirely. But the team grows with Valanciunas in the starting lineup, there’s an offensive player the Cavs would have to worry about and concentrate on, it’s a different-look Raptors team. Maybe not a team that could beat LeBron James and the Cavs under any circumstances, but a team with a chance.

And through two games in this series, the Raptors have looked like a team that has no chance to challenge the Cavs, let alone beat them.

When he went down in Miami, Valanciunas was playing the best basketball of his life, maybe having the best game he’s ever played. That’s what makes this so unfortunate. He was growing every day. He was finding new ways to get things done. He was providing space for his teammates, energy for the crowd, demonstrating there is a place for the traditional centre in an NBA that seems to be going in a smaller direction.

Valanciunas had scored 18.3 points a game against the Heat in parts of three games, but that number would have been higher had he finished Game 3. He was bringing down 12.6 rebounds a game in the second round. He was looking close to unstoppable, and the Cavs don’t have a real centre themselves. They are playing the local guy, Tristan Thompson, the power forward, at centre. Valanciunas is three inches taller than Thompson.

It’s unlikely we’ll know what that would have meant because it’s unlikely Valanciunas will play any games in the series.

The Raptors are 2-4 in six playoff games without Valanciunas and were 6-4 in games in which he started. The presence of the Cavs changes those equations but the playoffs could well end with the Raps 6-4 in Valanciunas games and 2-6 in games he does not.

And so you wonder: It isn’t that Bismack Biyombo, starting for Valanciunas, hasn’t done the job. It’s more that this series doesn’t match his skill set to date. In two games, Biz has brought down all of nine rebounds and scored 15 points. When he starts, it means there is no Biyombo to come off the bench. Coach Dwane Casey has to make a decision on who starts at power forward, again, which means both the starting lineup and the bench is affected by the absence of Valunciunas.

If Patrick Patterson starts, it means the bench is without two of its key pieces, Patterson and Biyombo. Either way, it’s hard enough for the Raptors. Climbing Mount LeBron is a monstrous act.

There is every possibility they don’t win this series with or without Valanciunas.

But with him, with a healthy Raptors roster, they might have had a chance.



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