Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other you’ll read before the 2016-17 season tips off. The premise is simple. We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
Jonas Valanciunas was pretty sure it was supposed to go the other way around — that he was supposed to be the one who got down on one knee and offered a blinding ring, but he blurted out “YES!” before he even realized what his assent might mean. It was the eve of the 2017 NBA Finals, and Jonas had just agreed to marry a kneeling Rihanna, who had a 4-carat diamond ring in her hand and a pleading expression on her face. It had been a long and winding road to this point, but Valanciunas felt like it would all end up OK.
The 2016-17 Raptors didn’t barnstorm through the regular season. They did what many people — outside of Boston, Chicago and New York — expected, securing the No. 2 seed in the East, thereby positioning themselves for a rematch with Cleveland in the Conference finals. But the regular season offered up a couple morsels that make them a very dangerous opponent in the playoffs: namely the improved defense of Jonas Valanciunas (who worked on his foot speed and defensive rotations all summer after seeing how much people loved Bismack Biyombo’s playoff performance in his steed), and coach Dwane Casey’s use of two different starting lineups: one with Jonas, and one without.
You see, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry using close to 60 percent of Toronto’s plays when they share the court, Valanciunas’ blossoming offensive game was like a rudder stuck in the mud. He needed clear water on the second team to see if it could grow even more. Raptors brass was pleasantly surprised, too, when Toronto’s second unit, spearheaded by a Corey Joseph-Jonas pick-and-roll game that was borderline unstoppable against second units over the course of the season (they scored 1.34 ppp on pick-and-rolls, tops in the league — per Synergy), destroyed opponents left and right. Combined with how long and lean the Raptors are off the bench, it’s a beautiful gambit that Casey stays with throughout the season.
Norman Powell made a leap as well, making Casey’s job a lot easier. In fact, Toronto’s bench was even more effective — plus-10.5 net rating — than the starter’s on the year (a solid, but not amazing, plus-5.6).
Jonas started 22 games, but for the remaining 59 where he came off the bench, the Raptors won 50 of them (they finished 56-26). When Jonas doesn’t start, Jared Sullinger slides over to be a small-ball center, and Patrick Paterson plays the four. That unit of Sully, Paterson, Demarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry actually gave up more points as a unit than the team overall, but it wasn’t as bad as you’d think with a small-ball center like Sully — who can’t exactly protect the rim. Carroll and Lowry are great defenders along the perimeter and Patterson helped with the defensive rebounding. Also, DeMar improved almost as much as Jonas on the defense end.
It was really a win-win, which is why the regular season went so well.
In the playoffs, a surprising Bruno Caboclo puts up 25 points off the bench in Game 3 against Atlanta in the first round, where they beat a late-blooming Hawks team in six games (Dwight is totally outplayed by Jonas on both ends of the floor). In the next round, a Celtics team with a banged up Isaiah Thomas falls easily in five games. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry average 60 points between them against Boston’s pesky defenders, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, and we hear later that both players were playing on severely twisted ankles.
The Conference finals was bonkers, though, with Jonas coming close to full-fledged superstar. The Cavs are totally healthy and win their first two games at home. But Jonas is re-inserted into the starting lineup to start Game 3, and comes within three blocks of a rare quadruple-double in a 20-point Toronto romp. They continue to stunt Kyrie Irving’s game by doubling him any time LeBron is off the court, and Kevin Love’s hot shooting Cleveland disappears in Toronto, where the Raptors again even the series in Game 4 like they did in 2016.
Game 5 was as remarkable for the person sitting in the front row — Rihanna — as it was for the combined efforts of Jonas, Kyle and Terrence Ross. Ross scored a season-high 30 points with seven 3-pointers off the bench. Lowry again held Kyrie to a poor night — 3-of-16 from the floor, 11 points and eight assists — while scoring 22 of his own points and dishing 10 dimes. But Jonas overpowered Tristan Thompson and a totally overmatched Channing Frye (he also stayed with Frye on the perimeter when they went small) to score a game-high 38 points, snag 15 boards and block five shots. The penultimate moment of the series came when Valanciunas blocked a LeBron dunk attempt in the waning seconds of the third quarter to turn the Q into a library.
Rihanna can be seen ignoring Drake’s whispered comments during the game, and Twitter wonders who she’s staring at so intently on the court. A keen-eyed redditor offers evidence it’s Jonas, but for the most part the mainstream media ignores the implications of their diligent research. One online magazine, Dime, does publish the findings and many callback to that post after what happens in June.
LeBron James tried to play superhero in the fourth quarter of Game 5, but his 15 points weren’t enough to overcome Jonas’ unstoppable post play and some timely three’s from Ross and Lowery. The Raptors would head home with a chance to wrap up the series.
Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre broke all sorts of volume records, and NBA cameras catch LeBron screaming at his teammates early in the game with puzzled expressions meeting him because they couldn’t hear a thing he was saying. Lowry and DeRozan had by this point taught most of their teammates a rare form of sign language they learned after watching the updated Tarzan movie when they saw the protagonist use it to communicate with the animals who raised him.
Cleveland’s inability to communicate and a 40-point offering from DeRozan — who had been largely silent all series — led to a rather easy, 104-90 win to advance to the Finals. LeBron could be seen wiping away tears as he headed to the locker room.
Jonas was taken aback by Rihanna’s abrupt call for life-long monogamy. They had only been dating (in secret) for a month, but it was clear their chemistry was kinetic, and the big Lithuanian was hoping she felt as in love with him as he did with her. But he was also pretty sure Drake had found out about their various trysts over the last month, and the Degrassi star was eyeballing him in that last game of the Conference finals.
It was then that Valanciunas woke up in a cold sweat in a San Francisco hotel. “My dreams are getting weird,” he thought as he brushed his teeth and rushed to catch the last bus to the arena. He made sure to leave a spare key for Ri before he left the room.
The night of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals Valanciunas couldn’t miss. He scored 15 points in the opening frame against the Warriors, and with Steph Curry going 0-for-5 from deep, the Raptors held a slim early lead. That difference only got larger as Kyle Lowry dropped 20 points in the third quarter. The Raptors would coast to a 123-108 win to hand the Warriors their first loss at Oracle on the year and totally deflate the confidence of a 74-win juggernaut.
The next three games were all Warriors, though, as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined to average 90 points between the. in three straight blowouts. Game 5 is when everything changed, though.
Durant and Steph couldn’t get anything to drop, and after Klay scored 12 in the first, he couldn’t buy a bucket, either. Plus, Lowry and DeRozan awoke from their series-long slumber to score 66 points between them and again hand the Warriors a loss on their home floor while staving off the premature end of their season.
Game 6 back in Canada saw Jonas Valanciunas again destroy the Warriors like he had in opening game of the series — except this was an all-time display that marked him as the top center in the Association. He finished with 49 points, and 20 offensive rebounds, both Raptors records, and Toronto had somehow overcome all the odds to tie the series at 3-3.
The Warriors, after what happened the year before, were as tight as you’d expect heading into Game 7. Both Durant and Curry scored 30 points in that Game 7, and the Warriors effectively defended Jonas as a group, but Patrick Patterson got hot from downtown and finished with a playoff career high 30 points. Lowery was also solid with 20 and 10 and some tough defense on Steph. The two-time MVP had to work very hard to score his 30.
In the end, it was a bit anti-climactic. The ultimate moment was probably Valanciunas knocking down two huge free throws inside of a minute to stretch Toronto’s lead to four. He also defended Steph well enough on a switch during the ensuing possession that he forced an errant three, and a long Lowry rebound. The game, the series, and the season had been clinched. We The North, had done it.
On the floor, clutching the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy, Jonas wipes tears away from his eyes and sees Rihanna, pulling her arm out of the cold, calmly clasp of Joe Lacob, and walking toward him in a close-fitting crop top with “I love you” written in Lithuanian along the front, a devilish sparkle in her eye. In front of the world, she gets on one knee and asks him plainly: “Marry me.”
Dreams really do come true.