© The Canadian Press
Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas reacts after being called for a foul during their 94-87 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in NBA playoff basketball action in Toronto on Saturday, April 19, 2014.
TORONTO — Jonas Valanciunas was five years old when Kevin Garnett earned his first of 15 NBA all-star selections. He was 11 when Garnett was named the league MVP.
Valanciunas — now 21 — went toe to toe with the 37-year-old Garnett in Toronto’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their playoff series last Saturday. And if there was any sense of awe in the name on the back of the Brooklyn jersey he was guarding, the young Valanciunas didn’t show it, laying down a monster game in his post-season debut.
“He was not intimidated, he wasn’t fazed by the physicality or guarding a legend like KG. You’re talking about a guy who is going to be in the Hall of Fame,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
“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. (Valanciunas) did that.”
The Raptors host Game 2 of the series on Tuesday, then it shifts to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.
Valanciunas had 17 points and 18 rebounds in the opener of the seven-game series, while holding Garnett to five points. While many of the Raptors appeared overwhelmed by the enormity of their first playoff appearance in six seasons — for some players, it was their first playoff appearance, period — Valanciunas looked especially fired up from the opening tipoff.
When asked Monday about guarding Garnett, Valanciunas merely shrugged.
“He’s the same Garnett in regular season, so I’m playing him the same way. Just maybe adding 10 per cent more effort,” Valanciunas said, laughing.
On Garnett’s infamous trash talking: “I don’t understand English. So I’m OK.”
On whether Garnett was a player he looked up to growing up in Utena, Lithuania: “His last name is really famous, so I heard about him when I was a kid.”
Respect, but no fear.
What helped Valanciunas keep the nerves at bay, Casey believes, is that’s he’s accustomed to playing in front of noisy, passionate crowds.
“That’s one thing with the Euroleague, he’s played in some big games over there for his country,” Casey said. “He was not fazed by the crowd, by the moment, by it being the playoffs. I thought he did a good job of fighting the physicality, getting inside, rebounding, using his length against KG and (Nets centre Mason) Plumlee.”
As the Raptors’ season continues, so does Valanciunas’s development. His rebounds Saturday were a Raptors post-season record. His double-double was only the second by a Raptor in their playoff debut (Tracy McGrady recorded the other in 2000).
He scored a career-high 26 points earlier this month, less than three days after he was charged with drunk driving.
“It’s a positive. Him growing over the last month or so has really been a positive for our season,” Casey said. “He’s our future. 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.”
Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez, meanwhile, grew up watching the Nets’ other NBA legend Paul Pierce. He even attended Pierce’s basketball camp when he was a kid.
The 36-year-old Pierce was huge down the stretch in Game 1, scoring nine of his 15 points in the final three minutes.
Asked if there was one thing he learned from Pierce’s camp, Vasquez replied, with a wide grin: “I did. How to be clutch.”
Vasquez played like he was similarly unfazed by the big names on the opposing team. Vasquez, one of four Raptors acquired in December in the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, scored 18 points off the bench and doled out eight assists.
“You know what, to me, it’s fun,” Vasquez said. “I’m an underdog guy, so I’ve got to prove myself every day. I wake up with 220,000 pounds on my shoulder, so I’ve got to be able to find a way to walk and get to my job.
“It’s fun when you face Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, KG. I mean, I grew up watching those guys, especially Paul Pierce. Now I got a chance to beat ’em? To me, I can’t ask for anything better than that. It’s fun. It’s a basketball game, man, at the end of the day we’ve all got two hands. We all can shoot. We’ve got one of the best point guards, too (in Kyle Lowry). I’ll take our chances, man.”
For the players who did look affected by the nerves in Game 1 — all-star DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, to name two — Casey and his players believe Game 2 will be an entirely different story.
“We’re disappointed but we’re anxious to get a second chance at it. I think the second time around we’ll get the first game jitters away, out of us,” Casey said.
Game 2 could be a repeat of Game 1 when it comes to officiating. The Raptors weren’t on the favourable end of any calls in the fourth quarter on Saturday. They sounded resigned to the fact after Monday’s practice.
“We’ve accepted that all year long as far as not getting recognition or getting respect or even getting calls we think we should get,” said Raptors forward Patrick Patterson. “That’s happened all year long, so for us to think it’s going to change in the playoffs, we’re fooling ourselves. We have to go out there and not worry about the referees, not worry about the calls and just play basketball.”
The Raptors are hoping for a repeat performance by the Air Canada Centre crowd. A sellout crowd of 19,800 took in Game 1, clad in white T-shirts and waving white towels, thanks to a pre-game giveaway.
Hundreds more fans watched the game on the big screen in Maple Leaf Square outside the arena.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” Casey marvelled. “We were in Dallas for the (NBA) championship ... but this arena Saturday was unbelievable. I was proud of our fans. They showed the NBA what we’re about. The white-out, it was unbelievable. The enthusiasm. They not only cheered when we were up, they cheered when we were behind. It was constant. It was like a soccer crowd.
“Our players appreciated it. We appreciate it now we’ve got to go out and reciprocate with our effort.”
Saturday’s game was also a ratings hit for TSN. Overnight data from BBM Canada indicated an average audience of 539,000 viewers watched Game 1. It was the most-watched Raptors game on English television in Canada since 2002, the network said in a release.