For a 21-year-old in just his second year in the NBA, the pressure of having to put up big numbers in the postseason could be overwhelming. There's very little size behind him on the bench, so head coach Dwane Casey needs Valanciunas to stay out of foul trouble and remain on the floor as much as possible against the Brooklyn Nets.
His performance in Game 1 of the series was as good a start as he could have hoped for. Valanciunas scored 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked two shots in 35 minutes. If he was nervous, he certainly didn't let it show to the fans at the Air Canada Centre that afternoon.
He became just the second Raptor in franchise history (Tracy McGrady in 2000) to have a double-double in his first playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He's also the third player in league history to finish with at least 15 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks in his playoff debut, with Ben Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal being the other two.
Going up against a wily veteran like Kevin Garnett could prove intimidating to someone as young as Valanciunas. As Casey pointed out to Eric Koreen of The National Post, his starting center is rarely ever timid:
Him growing over the last month or so has really been a positive for our season. He’s our future. He’s our starting centre for a while to come so it’s great to see … He was not intimidated, he wasn’t fazed by the physicality or guarding a legend like KG.
I told our guys, ‘You’ve got to respect them because those guys have accomplished a lot in this league. But you can’t fear them.' KG would think less of him, knowing him, if it was anything less. Respect him, but you can’t fear him. And he did that.
No one plays mind games better than Garnett. He'll break you down by berating you and getting under your skin until your focus is completely shattered. The beautiful thing about Valanciunas is that he has a calm, cool and collected demeanour. It's going to take more than chirping in his ear and annoying little taunts to throw him off.
As solid an outing as he had, Valanciunas still left much room for improvement. He turned the basketball over six times, which was nearly as many as the entire Nets team (eight). The last time Valanciunas had that many turnovers was on Feb. 23 against the Orlando Magic. He never surpassed three for the remainder of the season.
The Raptors are looking for Valanciunas more and more down low.
He averaged a double-double of 16.8 points and 11.0 rebounds on 57.6 percent shooting in April, building momentum and further gaining the trust of his teammates in the process. Those numbers are a respectable increase over the 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds he put up in March, as well as the 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds he averaged in February.
Kyle Lowry, who scored a team-high 22 points on April 19, is happy with the progress Valanciunas has made, per Holly MacKenzie of Raptors.com:
[He is] being more aggressive, being more physical and trying to be more of a dominant piece down there in the paint. He’s trying to own the paint right now, you can tell, you can see the way he’s playing with a sense of urgency that he understands the situation, he’s just trying to get better and be more focused.
In 81 games, Valanciunas averaged 11.3 points on 53.1 percent from the field, 8.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 28.2 minutes.
With Brook Lopez out of the lineup, the Nets have resorted to starting Garnett at center and the undersized Paul Pierce (6'7") at power forward. Against a taller (7'0") and quicker Valanciunas, neither player can pose much of a threat on the boards.
Brooklyn finished 28th in defensive rebounding (29.4), 28th in offensive rebounding (8.8) and 29th in total rebounding (38.1) during the regular season, per NBA.com.
A majority of Valanciunas' offense comes from around the rim. He's proven capable of knocking down 10-foot jumpers (although not very consistently), but what he enjoys is playing back-to-the-basket and using quick spins and running hooks to put points on the board.
With no one on the Nets willing to slow him down, the Lithuanian sophomore can assert his will and continue to put up big numbers like he did in the series opener.
That is, if he can avoid silly fouls and keep himself off the pine. Valanciunas committed 249 fouls during the year, which was 10th-highest in the NBA.
Mistakes are inevitable. It's just a matter of keeping them to a minimum. He'll get sloppy on occasion and make bad decisions, but he's still learning and maturing as a basketball player. Valanciunas is getting a world of experience in such a short period of time.
He's the difference-maker in this series. Fans can only hope that his line from Game 1 wasn't an apparition. The team needs him to be a monster in the paint and on the glass if they want any chance of advancing to the next round.
*Unless noted otherwise, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of April 22, 2014*
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