During Sunday night’s Game 1 thriller between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, TNT analyst Chris Webber drew from his playing experience.
“Your first playoff game, you are too excited,” Webber said. “Your adrenaline is too high.”
Webber was talking about sophomore point guard Damian Lillard, making his postseason debut. Lillard was incredible, finishing with 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Most first-timers are not nearly as successful as Lillard.
In the Toronto Raptors’ Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, there were plenty of nerves. All-Star DeMar DeRozan is glad Game 1 is over, sophomore Terrence Ross was limited to just 16 minutes because of foul trouble and head coach Dwane Casey pointed to the team’s 19 turnovers as a sign of their jitters.
Toronto’s second-year big man Jonas Valanciunas did not shrink under the bright lights. Facing off against Kevin Garnett, Valanciunas finished with 17 points and a franchise playoff-record 18 rebounds.
“I have to stay aggressive and humble,” Valanciunas said. “Running the floor and fighting for offensive rebounds, for defensive rebounds. That’s me. That’s all I have been doing.”
The 21 year-old has become more comfortable demanding the ball in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. His teammates are enjoying his increased confidence on both ends of the floor.
“[He is] being more aggressive, being more physical and trying to be more of a dominant piece down there in the paint,” Kyle Lowry said. “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.”
Part of playing against NBA champions like Garnett and Paul Pierce is to focus inward and not get distracted by the names on the back of the jersey. Growing up in Lithuania, Valanciunas didn’t have access to NBA games the way a typical North American youth does, but Garnett’s legend is no secret to him.
“His last name is really famous,” Valanciunas said. “So, I heard about him when I was a kid.”
At 37 years old, Garnett has 15 years on Valanciunas. Still, the sophomore refuses to allow the constantly talking Garnett to rattle him. A few minutes into speaking with reporters after Toronto’s practice on Monday afternoon, Valanciunas was asked if Garnett talks a lot on the court. Without missing a beat, Valanciunas said no, then delivered the punch line: “I don’t understand English, so…” Trailing off, he flashed a grin to the assembled media.
In just his second year in the NBA, Valanciunas has impressed his teammates and coaching staff. His experience playing in the Euroleague certainly helps with the jump to postseason play, but his postseason debut was a welcome sight.
“You’re talking about a guy who is going to be in the Hall of Fame,” Casey said of squaring off against Garnett. “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 [Valanciunas] did that.”
While everything looks shinier in the postseason, Valanciunas’ teammates continue to point to his play in the last month of the season as evidence of his growth and development. With Game 2 ready to tip off Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the team is hopeful Valanciunas will pick up where he left off in Game 1.
“He’s our future,” Casey said. “He’s our starting centre for a while to come so it’s great to see. Plus, he’s a great kid. He works at it. He was not intimidated, he wasn’t fazed by the physicality or guarding a legend like KG.”
As for Valanciunas’ game plan come Tuesday night?
“He is the same Garnett as he is in the regular season so I play him the same way,” Valanciunas said. “Just maybe adding 10% more effort.”