However, after word came out Sunday that Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas would be out for the remainder of the series with a sprained right ankle, all that momentum that could’ve been built from Game 3 has now been quickly halted.
Frankly speaking, the Raptors face an almost insurmountable challenge ahead of them without Valanciunas.
The Raptors centre’s dominance in the series thus far has been readily apparent as his 18.3 points, and 12.7 rebounds per game on 64.9 per cent shooting proves. However’s it isn’t just the numbers that has been so impressive, it’s more the overall supremacy he’s exuded over Miami’s frontline from both a talent and basketball IQ standpoint. No matter who has tried to defend Valanciunas on the Heat, he’s managed to find different ways to beat them time and again.
With Hassan Whiteside, who suffered a twisted right knee Saturday and has been listed as day-to-day, Valanciunas has used his superior strength to bully the Heat centre, taking advantage of his weak one-on-one post defence, despite him being a very gifted shot blocker. Against Udonis Haslem he’s used his greater length to go over the top and score easy baby hooks. And Versus Stoudemire he’s schooled him with power similar to how he’s dealt with Whiteside.
When facing all three, Valanciunas has also outsmarted them a lot of the time by finding better rebounding position, enabling him to get all those easy tip-ins that have been so demoralizing for Miami.
Just about the only Heat big man who showed any level of effectiveness trying to go against Valanciunas was Josh McRoberts, who didn’t see any floor time in the first games, and that’s likely because he has such an overwhelming athletic advantage over the Raptors centre and does a good job of finding his man and boxing out when rebounds are up for grabs.
McRoberts aside, however, all this is to say that there really isn’t anybody who should be seeing lots of floor time on the Heat’s side that can do anything about Valanciunas.
The same cannot be said of the rest of Toronto’s bigs matching up against Miami’s. This is where the problem of Valanciunas out for the rest of the series really comes in.
Patrick Patterson played centre for the Raptors down the stretch, but it wasn’t his presence that really sparked the Raptors. Not to mention, his real value comes in his ability to be an extra guy who can guard Joe Johnson and still knock down a triple, so it isn’t like he’ll be banging with the Heat’s bigs very much to begin with.
Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola, on the other hand, will be in for the toughest tests.
Biyombo was fantastic against the Indiana Pacers, but that’s mainly because Indiana was only the 22nd-ranked offence in the league, meaning the Raptors could leave a defensive specialist like Biyombo on the floor and not really worry much about their own offence. Against the Heat, the 12th-ranked attack this season, the Raptors can’t afford to do that as much because playing 4-on-5 on “O” would likely prove to be too difficult.
This issue of only really being able to play Biyombo in small doses is compounded by Scola’s struggles that make him virtually unplayable. The Argentine got his first dose of action in the series Saturday after five straight games that saw Raptors coach Dwane Casey leave him on the bench. He ended up picking up three fouls in five minutes, missing both shots he took to bring his shooting percentage in these playoffs down to an almost unfathomably bad 18.8 per cent.
No doubt about it, Scola can’t play in this series. But if he can’t play and it looks as if Biyombo’s skill set won’t be of much use here either, what does Casey do? Does he try Jason Thompson? More James Johnson? Maybe even Lucas Nogueira? None of these options are attractive in the least, but that’s what it might come down to.
And if the prospect of Valanciunas’ less-than-ideal replacements wasn’t a menacing enough thought for Raptors fans, then what was seen after he went down in Game 3 should downright terrify them.
Right Before the injury the Raptors had a comfortable 55-42 lead that they then squandered away only to come back in dramatic fashion. When Valanciunas exited the game Miami ended up outscoring the Toronto 49-40, a result that looks even worse if you factor in that had it not been for Kyle Lowry’s heroics, the Raptors would’ve only put up 17 points without their starting centre.
This stretch, as small a sample size as it may be, is significant because of how bad Game 3 could’ve turned out for the Raptors if Lowry didn’t suddenly appear to re-discover his all-star form. But is it wise to just trust that he’s back and all that was ailing him before when he was only averaging 13.5 points per game on 30.8 per cent shooting coming into Saturday’s contest?
If Lowry is actually back to being the same player that was arguably the best point guard in the Eastern Conference during the regular season then Toronto should be fine, however, the results outside of Game 3 has to make you nervous.
The Raptors are up 2-1 and in control for now, but that’s mostly because of Valanciunas. They better hope now that Lowry is at his best. The series rides on it.