TORONTO — It was midway through the second quarter of a tight game against the Miami Heat Saturday night, and the Toronto Raptors were getting outrebounded 18-9. During stoppages in play, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was all over back-up centre Bismack Biyombo, who was playing at the time, urging him to battle harder under the basket and telling him, “you’re letting guys take your candy away from you—don’t let them do that.”
Then, Casey put his starting centre Jonas Valanciunas back on the floor.
“JV came in and got the rebounding game back in order,” Casey said. “He got it back the way it should be.”
Valanciunas grabbed four straight boards after he re-entered, including two on offence, and helped his Raptors fight back from a slim deficit in a game they’d eventually win in overtime, 112-104.
DeMar DeRozan was the hero, putting on another of his trademark volume-shooting, bad-shot-hitting, getting-to-the-free-throw-line-all-night performances that Raptors fans can so often take for granted. But meanwhile, Valanciunas was quietly doing his part to help turn his team’s night around.
"I was just trying to do my job," the ever media shy Valanciunas said after the game. "Rebounding wasn’t a focus for me when I came in. I just tried to help where I could."
The seven-foot Lithuanian finished with 10 rebounds in all, to go with an efficient 20 points, which gave him his team-leading 18th double-double this season.
The Heat posed an interesting matchup for Valanciunas, who was guarded for most of the night by Hassan Whiteside, one of the best shot-blockers in the league. Whiteside did a fine job defending Valanciunas one-on-one, but when the Miami centre would move off of Valanciunas to try and earn blocks on DeRozan or Kyle Lowry as they drove to the rim, Valanciunas was left all alone for dump-offs which led to easy buckets.
"One thing I think a lot of teams know is I’m good at getting to the basket. So, teams like Miami that have got shot blockers, they’re going to try to bring the shot blocker over," DeRozan said. "So, I just told our bigs: relocate. Try to find an open spot and I’m gonna try to find you every time."
That’s part of the reason Valanciunas was able to get to 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, scoring double digits for the 17th straight game, something he’s never done before in his young career. Casey even drew up a play specifically for Valanciunas out of a timeout with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter and his team up by three, an absolutely crucial spot in the game.
"That was great," Valanciunas says. "Every time the coach shows trust in you, it’s great. It’s more motivation to keep playing better."
The play was designed to look like it was drawn up to be a DeRozan shot, and sure enough the Heat bit on it and left Valanciunas open under the basket. DeRozan fed him easily and Valanciunas had all the time in the world for a two-handed dunk.
The Heat may not have been expecting DeRozan to go to Valanciunas in that spot, especially because the Raptors guard had just 36 assists to the big man all season. But it would end up being DeRozan’s third helper to Valanciunas on the night -- he’d even add a fourth for another easy Valanciunas dunk in overtime.
"The ball was moving fantastic tonight," Valanciunas said. "DeMar drove and found me. [Lowry] did the same thing. [James Johnson] did a great job driving, because the big fellas were really up on him helping. I just tried to always be ready for those dump-offs. There was a lot of easy points under the basket."
But what Casey said he was most impressed by on the night was Valanciunas’s rebounding, which was a small note in the game but a critical one nonetheless. (Casey also liked Valanciunas’s urgency in setting screens for DeRozan and Lowry; he praised how Valanciunas sprinted into Miami’s guards so they didn’t have time to react, instead of walking into them and letting the defender slip under the pick.)
Valanciunas’s numbers rarely jump off the stat sheet, but they’ve been undeniably consistent of late, as he’s bringing double-digit points on a nightly basis. Stopping the opposition’s rebounding momentum at a key juncture in the game is just a bonus. Not that Valanciunas wants to hear any credit for it.
"I’ve got to be a rebounder. I’ve got to protect the paint," Valanciunas says. "That’s my job, you know? I’ve got to do my job."