Toronto earned their first-ever series sweep against the Brooklyn Nets Sunday night, and the 150-122 final score was reflective of the complete dominance the Raptors showed over the course of the four games.
Sure, Game 2 was close and the Raptors had to work their way back into it after the Nets took an early lead, but the fact that the defending champions could come away with a victory in a game where they shot 25.7 percent from three and missed nine free-throws shows just how much it was going to take for Brooklyn to even get a game.
Next in store for the Raptors is the third-seeded Boston Celtics, a team that will surely present a far greater challenge in moving to the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto always prioritizes what it needs to do in order to win ahead of thinking about what the opponent might do, though, so here are five things we learned about them over the course of the four games that should serve them well in the next round:
Defence wins championships is the old cliché that’s never gone away, not even in this high-scoring world of the NBA. Yes, there are a lot more points being scored, but that makes Toronto’s ability to get stops even more valuable.
They were able to turn off the tap for the Nets seemingly at will over the course of the series and have made a habit all season of shutting down the team’s best player. Since the all-star break, Caris LeVert was averaging 24.4 points and emerging as one of the more dynamic scorers in the league. There was plenty of chatter about him going up against the Raptors lauded defence, and the latter didn’t disappoint.
In the first three games, LeVert averaged just 15.3 points while shooting 32 percent from the field overall and 25 percent from three. He did average 10.7 assists as the Raptors constantly forced the ball out of his hands and others hit shots, but taking LeVert out of his comfort zone took the Nets out of their natural rhythm and left them with no chance.
“Like any other great scorers in the league, it’s not really stopping him, just make it tough on him,” VanVleet said. “I thought we did a good job of limiting his looks, crowding the floor and he did a good job of making that pass when it was there. You know, pick your poison.”
The Raptors picked a rather fatal poison for the Nets, outscoring them by 82 for the series.
VanVleet has made a leap
His game may be low to the ground but Fred VanVleet took his game to another level in the NBA playoffs. Over the four games, VanVleet averaged 21.3 points, 7.8 assists, four rebounds, and 1.3 steals while shooting 55.9 percent from three-point range. Of course, in what has become his favourite category, VanVleet is among the league leaders in deflections with 12 at this stage after finishing atop the leaderboard during the regular season.
The scoring is a major development for the Raptors as their offence ranked middle-of-the-pack during the regular season and that raised some concerns from experts heading into the playoffs. But if VanVleet keeps shooting the ball like this, you can kiss those worries goodbye.
“I'm working my butt off,” VanVleet said. “I'm working in between games, and practice whether it's a short time or a long time, just keep continuing to work on my offensive game and find my spots and my teammates are doing a great job of finding me and screening and our bigs are screening and just finding creases where I feel like I can get good looks off and as long as I can keep continuing to get looks off I feel good about the ball going in.”
Making every little bit of home court count
The Raptors are a long way from the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena and Jurassic Park but that doesn’t mean they’re trying everything they possibly can to feel at home for the playoffs. From decorating their hotel room floor with nothing but championship posters to having family members introduce the starting lineups during their designated home games, the effort can’t be questioned.
And there was perhaps no bigger sign of how far the Raptors are willing to go when Jessie Reyez stood atop the CN Tower and belted out ‘O Canada.’ It was a goosebumps inducing experience to watch her even though it was on a screen and the team was thoroughly impressed.
“When I first saw it I looked to the person beside me, I think Norm was next to me, and I was like, ‘Man this is something,’ you know?” Davis said. “Words couldn’t really explain to me how amazing it was just to see her up there. I think it was incredible. To see all of Toronto and the CN Tower. It was just amazing.”
Nick Nurse, who also coaches the Canadian national team, was in awe of what he saw.
“Man, it was awesome,” Nurse said. “Caught me by surprise. I think everybody was probably thinking the same thing. You are trying to figure out, ‘Wait a minute, is that the CN Tower?” And then you saw that it was. It was an unbelievable rendition. I thought the camera and the shots of Toronto and all that stuff were ... I don’t know, kind of took your breath away a little bit. So, it was pretty cool.”
Eighth man will be by committee
We know who the Core 7 are: Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, Gasol, Powell, and Ibaka. But if the Raptors are going to make this a long, deep playoff run, they are going to need someone who can give them a bit of a breather at some point.
The candidates? Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher. While there were initial thoughts that one might genuinely emerge as a part of the playoff rotation, head coach and your Coach of the Year Nick Nurse said he preferred to mix-and-match depending on what the team needs because of the different skill sets each of those individuals bring.
“We all know, we’ve seen ‘em play, from Chris to Rondae to Terence to Matt,” Nurse said after the Raptors set an NBA record with 100 bench points in the fourth and final game of the series. “Obviously, Serge and Norm. I said this before the game to the TNT guys, the seven guys I’m playing are all wanting to play more. So, it’s hard to kind of manage it all, sometimes. We love and know our seven. We knew our eight, for sure, with Pat (McCaw), because those guys had all been with us for my tenure. All those other guys were new.
“I think I tried somebody different every night in this series. I think it was Rondae and then it was Matt, then it was Terence. Not sure what it was tonight. They all did a good job tonight. But they work hard. It was nice to see them play hard tonight and have some success.”
Nick Nurse keeps getting left on read
In a seeding game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Nick Nurse was left hanging searching for a high 10 as the Raptors went into a timeout.
Somehow, Nurse suffered the same fate in the final game against the Nets as he opted for a low-5 with VanVleet after he hit a stone cold triple that buried the Nets but got no love whatsoever.
What’s the NBA’s new Coach of the Year got to do to get a little respect?