Through the ups and down of the Toronto Raptors three previous playoff runs under head coach Dwane Casey one thing remained constant, Jonas Valanciunas (“JV”) stepped up and played big, but not now. It took a lot for Casey to get JV to wake up and play up to his potential this year.
In Valanciunas’ first 23 playoff games prior to this year he averaged a double-double 12.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. He was a force and a go-to-guy when DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry were struggling.
This year was a different story. JV was sent to the bench shooting 37.5 percent from the field after his team went 1-2 in their first three games against Milwaukee. Casey could use the excuse that the matchup with Bucks backup center Greg Monroe was better, but Milwaukee’s starting center was a rookie, so it would have been reasonable to expect more.
In hindsight it was unfortunate Valanciunas bought the excuse and willingly went to the bench. It would have been better if he’d bristled at the demotion.
After getting past the Bucks with a 3-0 run and JV coming off the bench, Casey put Valanciunas back in the starting lineup in Game One against the Cavs and to put it bluntly, JV stunk.
It wasn’t easy to tell Valanciunas he’d be coming off the bench for Game Two with the undersized Tristan Thompson starting for the Cavs, but Casey had to do something to shake Valanciunas out of his malaise.
“I think the hair is up on the back of his neck a little bit,” Casey said prior to Game Three. “A little teed off that he is coming off (the bench). My hat goes off to him cause he has been starting the entire year and because of matchup situations and trying to win the series he has had to come off the bench.
“He is still one of the top centers in the league and it takes a lot for him to come off the bench. He is trying to show everyone I’m not a backup center in this league. Which he’s not. He’s just doing it for the fact that we needed that matchup in the last series and also we tried to take advantage of that in this series.”
Finally the demotion to backup center in Game Two woke JV up and he led Toronto in scoring with 23 points in just 20.2 minutes.
“He’s a good player on the low post,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said prior to Game Three. “Uses his shot fakes well, gets to the basket, can make a jump shot, but they play thru Kyle and DeMar a lot, so that being said, he’s a third option on his team. What he did in the last game is a little different than what he did in the past. He did make some shots last game.”
He make some shots in his next game as well. Back in the starting unit because he earned it, Valanciunas was second in scoring on the Raptors with 19 badly needed points on 8-10 shooting.
In his first seven games this postseason, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points on a disappointing 46.8 shooting, but since being woken up by Casey that’s jumped to 21 points on 78.3 percent.
The improved play from Valanciunas hasn’t been enough for the Raptors to steal a win from the favored Cavs, but at least the team has looked better than in Game One and that could matter in what is likely the final home game of the year for Toronto on Sunday.
“We are going to show what we are made of,” Valanciunas said about Game Four. “We are going to come in and give up or we are going to come in and fight. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we need to come here and fight and leave everything on the court.”
Welcome to the fight JV. Game Four is all about pride and we’ve seen how well JV and the Raptors can play when their backs are against the wall.
Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson