Valanciunas’s Game 1 performance fodder for optimists and pessimists

LeBron James had 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers came back to beat the Toronto Raptors 113-112 in OT.

TORONTO — Jonas Valanciunas bent back at the waist, put his fists to his forehead, and collapsed to his knees. His palms slapped the floor before he pushed himself to his feet, as LeBron James walked by, basketball in his hands. The clock read 0.6 in the fourth quarter of a tie game.

Valanciunas had just spent six long seconds camped under the opposition’s basket as the Raptors missed four consecutive attempts at a potentially game-winning bucket. The fourth was a clean left-handed put-back, the kind of elementary, soft-touch tip-in Valanciunas has converted, oh, let’s say somewhere north of 1,000 times over his career.

This time, he did not. After a Fred VanVleet miss, a DeMar DeRozan miss, a CJ Miles miss, Valanciunas had as good of an opportunity as any of them to end it and — missed. That’s the kind of fourth quarter it was for the Toronto Raptors.

“We missed some shots. We missed some easy shots,” Valanciunas said, standing in a quiet Raptors dressing room after Tuesday’s 113-112 overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “They were switching a lot. They were aggressive. They were playing really aggressive defence. But, still, it’s on us.”

There’s no other way to look at it. The Raptors shot 20.8 per cent in the fourth quarter. They missed 19 of 24 attempts from the field. They defended well, holding the Cavaliers to 35 per cent shooting in the frame. They took care of the ball, turning it over only three times. It was just the shots. For one reason or another, the ball wouldn’t drop.

The final four minutes were particularly brutal. The Raptors went 0-for-12 over that span, scoring only three points on a trio of Serge Ibaka free-throws after he was fouled beyond the three-point arc. Valanciunas alone went 0-for-5, missing three times on a single play when his layup over Cavaliers centre Tristan Thompson rimmed out, before a pair of put-back attempts refused to fall.

There was another bricked layup on the very next possession — another he usually makes. That one left Valanciunas running back on defence staring at his hands. And then, the missed tip-in at the end. The one that could have won it.

“I know it sounds simplistic — but we had our open looks, had our opportunities that we didn’t cash in on,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I’m going to go back and look at how many easy buckets we missed in those situations. Those were deflating. No matter who you’re playing, at this level, at this time of the playoffs, all the chippies, the missed shots, the little things — it’s nothing that’s huge. We’ve just got to clean up a lot of little things that we can do a better job with.”

This is not to pick on Valanciunas. If not for his play — he finished with the same amount of rebounds as points, 21 — the Raptors would never have been in position to win at all.

Plus, Valanciunas rose to a significant challenge. As the Cavaliers began the game with a small lineup featuring Kevin Love at centre and James at power forward, Casey rolled with his usual starters. He trusted Valanciunas to simultaneously protect the rim and guard Love out to the three-point line at one end, then run down the floor and torch Cleveland’s undersized lineup at the other.

And that’s exactly what happened. The Raptors leaned on Valanciunas early and often as they built the 14-point lead they’d eventually cough up.

“I thought Jonas played really well. We made them pay for the small lineup,” Casey said. “He’s got that advantage as far as his post-ups, his tip-ins, his driving to the basket, getting to the free-throw line, and rebounding. He did a heck of a job at that position.”

Valanciunas dominated his battles with Love throughout the game, but the mismatch stood out starkest early in the third quarter as the Raptors fed the Lithuanian centre a steady diet of work in the post, which Love had no answer for. After a six-point, 11-rebound first half, Valanciunas went off for 13 and five in eight-and-a-half third-quarter minutes, getting to the free-throw line seven times as Love fouled him repeatedly.

At one point, Love simply gave up on defending altogether, and hacked Valanciunas as he began his post move. Valanciunas went sprawling to the floor, and as he walked to the line after being pulled up by his teammates, he shook his head and mouthed, “he can’t guard me, he can’t guard me.”

Clearly, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue felt similarly, putting Thompson and Jeff Green on Valanciunas in the fourth quarter and overtime. That duo had much more success than Love did, despite the many opportunities Valanciunas had at the rim that refused to fall.

James, who had a possession or two opposite Valanciunas himself, actually posited that the Toronto centre’s dominance in the third quarter contributed to his struggles in the fourth.

“He’s a load and we just try to throw different coverages at him. He was kicking our butt in the third quarter — and-one’s, free-throws, offensive rebounds,” James said. “Luckily, I thought he just kind of wore down in the fourth a little bit. He had six or seven opportunities at the rim — either his own or tips at the rim — and it wasn’t falling. I think Tristan did a great job just to wear on him as much as he could in the fourth and in OT as well.”

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So, are you an optimist or a pessimist? If you’re the former, Valanciunas’s Game 1 performance should be encouraging. He dominated Love all night, and the Cavaliers didn’t have a strong answer for him beyond that.

Even Thompson got worked in the fourth when Valanciunas took a Kyle Lowry feed in the post and finished a strong reverse along the baseline with Love crashing in on him to help. Those matchups will be there all series, and if the Cavaliers choose to double-team Valanciunas, other parts of the floor will open up for shooters.

And yet, if you’re a pessimist, you’re going to look at Game 1 as not only Valanciunas’s finest performance of these playoffs — maybe of his entire playoff career — but one that will be difficult to recreate. One that went to waste. You’ll think about how the Cavaliers will adjust to Valanciunas in Game 2 and force him into uncomfortable situations. You’ll think about all those misses down the stretch. How he couldn’t get a ball to drop in the final four minutes. How he could have won the game.

For his part, Valanciunas is an optimist.

“We’ve got to stay ready. We’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to learn from this loss and bounce back. The series is here. It’s not over yet. It’s just one game. We’re in good shape,” he said. “We have confidence. We have confidence going into Game 2 and winning it. This was a tough game. We lost by one. But it’s not like they were way, way better. We’re still here. We’ve just got to clean up some mistakes and make some shots and we’re good.”

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