Game 2 win shows Raptors need to feature Valanciunas against Heat

The Toronto Raptors, led by Jonas Valanciunas, outlasted Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat for a series-tying Game 2 victory.
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DeMar DeRozan, whose approach on offense is essentially an exercise in reaching the foul line, stood at the stripe for two critical shots in the fourth quarter.

The Raptors star, who trailed only James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins in free-throw attempts this season, missed both. But Jonas Valanciunas was there to clean up the second miss on a putback that mirrored much of Toronto’s 96–92 Game 2 overtime win Thursday night.

Toronto entered the final period trailing Miami 65–63, and it looked like the Raptors were headed toward a 2–0 series deficit. Their body language was bad and they looked dead in the water.

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Valanciunas would have none of it. He posted 15 points and 12 rebounds, including nine points on 4-of-5 shooting in the fourth quarter. His impact was far greater than those stats captured, as was noted in his +17 rating, by far the highest of any player to touch the floor.    

So much attention has been heaped on the Raptors’ star guards that Valanciunas can often become a forgotten man. For the Raptors to find success going forward, however, that can't be the case. 

Sure, Lowry and DeRozan carried Toronto to the postseason and played a large part in the franchise making its first second-round appearance since 2001.

Both players had great regular seasons. They were All-Stars in Toronto, propped up as headliners for one of the NBA’s biggest weekends of the year. None of that changes the fact they have been historically bad this postseason. Lowry and DeRozan own the two worst shooting percentages in these NBA playoffs.

The Raptors made it work for one night, though, because Valanciunas was just that good. He won the matchup with Hassan Whiteside and attacked every offensive rebound and loose ball within his reach. He managed to pull in six offensive boards, but he had to get his hands on at least six more to extend plays for his team.

What was most impressive about Valanciunas’s night was that he managed to effect change from the periphery of Toronto’s offense. He connected on 7 of 9 field goals but rarely received a post-up. He formed a deadly screen-and-roll duo with Lowry, but it was seldom used and he wasn’t called on enough down the stretch, when Toronto took a couple ill-advised shots and allowed Miami to push the game to overtime on a Goran Dragic three-pointer.

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Valanciunas didn’t show us anything we hadn’t seen. He’s been a great rebounder with boundless energy. The most valuable piece of information his performance could offer Toronto is the realization that there is another way to win. Lowry and DeRozan are the focal points of the franchise, but should the Raptors really keep shoveling them the ball for another 16-of-46 shooting night?

Lowry’s struggles have been well documented because he’s been willing to take on every question and put his ego to the side. But DeRozan’s struggles are just as troubling. While Lowry gets in his own head and starts to pass up shots, DeRozan answers bad shooting nights with more aggressive drives and forced midrange looks.

This approach usually lands him at the free-throw line, which serves as a safe haven for volume shooters. That was not the case Thursday night, as he hit only 2-of-8 and kept Miami alive late with misses.

That the Heat came this close to a victory was astounding. Dwyane Wade had six turnovers, Dragic sustained eight stitches and Whiteside’s impact didn’t extend beyond halftime.

Toronto didn’t get Miami’s best shot, and it still barely escaped in its home building. Teams don’t typically recover after dropping two home games to start a series. Luckily for the Raptors, they won’t have to consider that fate. And while they managed to avoid what was basically the equivalent of a death knell, they will need fundamental changes to their approach to miss the next one. They should start by making Valanciunas more of a priority.