May 13, 2016, 11:13 pm
The Toronto Raptors are facing the Miami Heat in what can loosely be described as a series of basketball games. Look around the rest of the NBA. Watch that instead.
Imagine your dumbest friend explaining basketball. They would definitely forget to mention some of the key things that make basketball look good. This series is what would happen if a bunch of actors tried to recreate that description to the letter.
“So there’s five guys a team and they try to shoot the basketball into the hoop, except they have to dribble and can’t take too many steps or it’s a turnover.”
They have to dribble it up? So they can’t pass?
“Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that part.”
Too late, no passing. But it’s supposed to be a team game, right?
“For the most part. But sometimes it’ll really get going and two guys will put their teams on their back and try and match big shots.”
That’s really cool! I bet that’s fun to watch. But isn’t matching scores unhelpful if you’re losing? Is there a way to come back if you’re behind by a lot?
“I forgot to say that it’s only fun if the shots go in. Otherwise it’s kinda sad. Those shots are usually hard. Also I really should’ve mentioned passing before. But yeah, there’s a three point line, so honestly guys should shoot from there to get the extra point if they’re not close to the basket.”
Wow, that’s neat. Why wouldn’t everyone just take those then?
“I forgot to say it’s a harder shot and most guys aren’t that great at it.”
Too late, everyone’s tossing up bad triples. And on and on.
It’s so bad it’s good, almost. Not in a ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 cult classic’ way, but in a ‘Comedy Central weekend afternoon movie’ way. The way that makes you wonder why you get some chuckles out of something so obviously bad; why you’re even watching this in the first place.
This series has rightfully been the center of scorn from the basketball world. It’s ugly, but not without merit. The battle for rule of Trash Mountain has given us fleeting moments of good stuff. Of real basketball strategy and drama. You have to sift through the isolation jumpers and horrendous play calling, but there’s some good stuff in there.
At the outset, this looked like a fun matchup. Miami, even without Chris Bosh, is a fun assemblage of talent with the ultimate rim protector and quick and crafty wings that survived seven with Charlotte thanks to their reliable old guy. Toronto advanced despite a disappearing shooting guard and bad shooting from the team’s leader — because of their burgeoning big man Jonas Valanciunas and key free agent acquisitions Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll.
There were fun subplots all over the place. DeMar DeRozan would be taking on Dwyane Wade: the man whose game he wishes he had. Could Wade keep bailing out Miami with big buckets? Could the Raptors stop stinking like hot garbage? Would Miami keep drilling triples at crazy rates? How about those true centers?
From the jump, this one was ugly. Hassan Whiteside walled off the paint, forcing struggling shooters into poor jump shots. It went as you’d expect. Valanciunas was really the only one capable of handling Whiteside’s presence, and did so with poise and aplomb. Game 1 was completely and totally in Miami’s hands until a sequence of late game comedy somehow allowed for Kyle Lowry to toss up a prayer and have the Basketball Gods guide it through the hoop. Miami opened overtime by hitting a series of tough shots and mercifully put the game away.
Game 2 featured a strong Toronto start followed by a complete collapse in the 3rd quarter. Valanciunas took over the 4th once he finally got some touches, pouring in 11 points while snatching seven rebounds in the frame. A miscommunication between DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph gave up a game-tying three, though Toronto came through in overtime and the pair could laugh about it later.
After the first two games, Toronto was left with a few choices. How should they make up for the fact that the paint is inaccessible for anyone not named Jonas? How fast do you get away from what’s worked in the past? How long can it take for shooting variance to regress, if that’s even the root cause?
Miami was left to examine their own 3-point ineptitude as well as the fact that they generally can’t hang when Lowry is on the floor, let alone shooting well. Trying to leverage Toronto’s aggressive ICE-ing into more easy plays for Whiteside was also in the cards.
Before Game 3, the focus shifted from Toronto’s backcourt struggles to the performance of their emergent Lithuanian and his battle with Agent Block (a nickname far worse than this series).
Those two were set to give us one of the last shots at a traditional center battle. Newer, quicker bigs like Draymond Green, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns are total packages that are shaping the sport’s future with their versatility. It definitely makes for more visually pleasing games but there’s some wistful, nostalgic quality to watching JV and Hassan put in work.
There are very few guys in the mold of a traditional big man left, and those that are typically have some horrific Achilles’ heel that may or may not be free throws. If someone, say, on the Pistons or Clippers were to really get cooking, some intentional fouling would take them right out of the picture.
Though the jury is still out on Whiteside’s sudden charity stripe improvement, these are two young, up and coming centers that can impose their will on the game and don’t fear the hack. Whiteside makes going to the rim a non-option and Valanciunas uses an array of Sikma-esque pumps and pivots to put up points. In the first round, they announced their arrivals with authority. It was something you couldn’t get anywhere else. It was going to be fun, and for two games it was.
When Whiteside went down in Game 3, the question wasn’t whether Toronto should change its offensive direction — but rather how long would it take for Valanciunas to push his chair back from the table and declare himself full from feasting on Amare Stoudemire (washed; day to day) and the leathery husk that was once Udonis Haslem?
When Valanciunas went down in the next half, it was like the Basketball Gods ensured both fan bases that there would be no excuses. Nobody in South Beach can say “Well if Hassan wasn’t out, it would’ve been different,” because now Jonas is down for the count too. It also ensured a weird feeling out process between two now-small teams and some great late game dueling between Wade and Lowry.
And some horrendous basketball, of course.
Toronto would win the hero ball battle and steal back home court. Lowry was back, maybe, hopefully. Wade doled out some delicious irony by blaming a loss on the other team shooting well while he’s shooting double his career percentage from deep. It became a whole new series that was going to get small. It was going to get weird.