- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
After looking like dead men walking after two blowout losses in Ohio, the Toronto Raptors stormed back to life on Saturday, scoring a 99-84 Game 3 win, riding a relentless interior performance from Bismack Biyombo and strong scoring from the backcourt troika of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph to get on the board in the Eastern Conference finals. What looked like a possible sweep 48 hours ago could fast become a tied series, and the Raptors on Monday will welcome back someone who could prove a big help in getting things knotted up:
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
After being listed as doubtful on Sunday and questionable on Monday afternoon, center Jonas Valanciunas will suit up for the Raptors for the first time since he suffered a right ankle injury in the third quarter of Game 3 of Toronto's second-round matchup with the Miami Heat:
The severe ankle sprain kept Valanciunas out for the remainder of that series, and for the first three games of this one, removing from Dwane Casey's rotation the 7-foot mauler who had beaten up the Heat and Indiana Pacers on the inside to the tune of 15 points on 55 percent shooting, 12.1 rebounds and nearly 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 28.5 minutes per playoff game. Through the first 10 games of the 2016 postseason, the opposition outscored Toronto by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with Valanciunas off the floor, while the Raptors played just about even (-0.3 points-per-100 in 285 minutes) with the Lithuanian on the court.
Biyombo has largely been tremendous since his elevation from the second unit to Toronto's starting five in Valanciunas' stead. He has changed multiple postseason games with his shot-blocking, interior deterrence, rebounding acumen, screen-setting and pick-and-roll prowess. But insufficient deeper-bench answers at the five spot — sorry, Jason Thompson and Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, but these haven't been your finest hours — have left the Raptors susceptible to rough patches when Biyombo has needed to rest.
Getting Valanciunas back could help restore Toronto's center spot to a position of strength — and, if he's ready to pick up where he left off in Miami, perhaps tilt the balance of power in this series. From Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com, prior to Game 2 of the conference finals (emphasis mine):
“I saw [Jonas] walking, so that was positive. He wasn’t sitting,” [Raptors general manager Masai] Ujiri said Wednesday. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to have him back. You wish a guy like that could be playing, because I feel that’s a difference — he’d be the best big guy in the game by far to me, so that would’ve helped us. But we don’t have that and that’s the nature of the NBA. You move on.”
Luckily for the Raptors, though, Valanciunas' ankle responded well enough to rest and treatment that they won't have to move on without him any longer.
It remains to be seen just how mobile Valanciunas will be in his return, how many minutes he's capable of logging after spending more than two weeks on the shelf, and how effective he'll be against a Cavaliers attack that has seemed intent on spreading its frontcourt players out to create more driving lanes. It's hard to envision Valanciunas coming straight into the fray and spending significant time trying to chase Kevin Love or Channing Frye out on the perimeter; Casey told reporters that Valanciunas’ role would be limited.
If Valanciunas' ankle is up to the challenge of moving in space, though, his offensive presence could prove exceptionally helpful. When he's right, Valanciunas can act as a post-up monster and interior offensive hub with size advantages over the likes of Love, Frye and Tristan Thompson; an offensive rebounder who can extend possessions when the Raps' guards don't shoot so straight; and an attention-gatherer who could open up more room for Lowry, DeRozan and Joseph to operate.
Toronto needs to maximize every possession and avenue to create advantages against a more talented Cavaliers team. Getting Valanciunas back in the lineup and back in the middle — if he's really healthy enough to go — could offer a huge boost to their chances of going from frisky sparring partner to legitimate threat to topple the defending Eastern Conference champs.
More NBA coverage:
- - - - - - -