WAYNE EMBRY BRACKET VOTING – https://play.raptors.com/tb_app/449755
JOHN SAUNDERS BRACKET VOTING – https://play.raptors.com/tb_app/449743
And like that, the field has been chopped in half.
Welcome back to the only tournament worth caring about this March, as we carry on determining which single-game, regular season performance in Raptors history is in fact the best.
The first round saw its share of upsets. Seven lower-seeds pulled off victories in the fan vote, with only one chalk match-up on tap for the Sweet Sixteen. With that having been said, it’s worth noting the vote disparity in most of the opening round tilts. Only a single first-round match-up — Vince Carters’ 47-point game against the Bucks (43%) vs. DeMar DeRozan’s 42-point, Bull Curse-breaking outing — had a final tally closer than 60-40.
We also said goodbye to most of the one-off entries into the field. Mike James, Charlie Villanueva, Andrea Bargnani, Morris Peterson, Keon Clark, Damon Stoudamire, Lou Williams, Marcus Camby, Amir Johnson, Walt Williams, Ben Uzoh, PJ Tucker, Donyell Marshall and José Calderon all had their hopes of a title dashed quickly and decisively. A field of 23 unique contestants has been cruelly shaved down to just nine, with the franchise’s most beloved stars hanging on to most of the remaining entries. Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have the most balls left in the hopper, both having won all three of their Round of 32 match-ups, followed by DeRozan, Carter and Pascal Siakam with two each. Terrence Ross, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh occupy the four remaining spots.
I’m not here to scold anyone. And outside of openly lobbying for Ross’ 51-point game to win the whole thing I’m not here to influence the vote, but I will use this space to say one thing: there were some severely wronged parties in the opening rounds. Here’s a look at my first-round picks, and the scores at the time of said selections, which did not appreciably change by the time voting closed.
Williams, Camby and Stoudamire were always at risk of being doomed by the 20-something years between their exploits and the construction of the bracket. But Clark, Charlie V and even Carter’s dominant 47-pointer against Milwaukee all received unfair shakes in the eyes of the committee. No, those games didn’t happen during the We The North era, but the highlight videos are all readily available for diligent voters to peruse.
Alas, I invited myself into the fan-voted bed, and so here I will lay. As we outlined in the piece covering the Round of 32, there were no bad games in the running. There were always bound to be some disagreements, and the 16 remaining contenders all had compelling cases to make it this far.
Old man lecture over; let’s get to it.
THE WAYNE EMBRY REGION (VOTE NOW)
(1) DeMar DeRozan scores 52p vs. Bucks – 1/1/18 vs. (8) Kawhi Leonard scores 45 vs. Utah vs. – 1/1/19
It was smooth sailing for the top-overall seed in round one, as DeRozan’s franchise-record night cruised past Ben Uzoh with 98 percent of the vote. Leonard meanwhile crushed Camby by an 80-20 split.
DeRozan’s claim to an Elite Eight spot is pretty iron-clad. His 52-point night punctuated his best season as a Raptor, the highest peak in a vast range. 2017-18 was of course the season that saw DeRozan jack up a career-high number of threes per game, while connecting on 31 percent, the second highest percentage he’s produced. He also reached previously uncharted play-making heights that year, dishing a then-personal best 5.2 dimes a night. Those steps helped modernize his game, without detracting from his masterful footwork, mid-range artistry, and around-the-rim scoring touch. That night against Milwaukee, each disparate element of DeRozan’s tool bag congealed, turning not only DeRozan into a walking bucket, but each of his teammates around him, too.
Leonard’s night of silencing the Jazz wasn’t so much a clinic in well-roundedness, but rather a frightening bit of proof that his injuries had healed, and was ready to carry an offense. He only picked up a single assist on the night of his career-high scoring output. But I mean, who needs to pass when you can walk into a 16-of-22 shooting line? This was the game that alerted the league to Leonard’s lofty, best-in-the-world ambitions.
(4) Kyle Lowry duels Steph Curry – 12/5/15 vs. (12) DeMar ends Bulls streak w/ 42-7-8 – 3/21/17
Here we get our first match-up between two of the best buds these parts have ever seen. A Raps loss in Lowry’s 41-point duel with Steph Curry wasn’t enough to dissuade voters from handing him a 75 percent share of the votes against Amir Johnson, who deserved better. DeRozan’s 12-over-5 upset of Vince Carter’s Olympic-snub revenge game against Ray Allen’s Bucks was the closest of the opening round, but still comfortable.
Choosing a winner here probably comes down to how much voters value wins or losses in big time regular season games. Efficiency-wise, Lowry has the edge here. He scored his 41 in that narrow loss to Golden State on a moist 14-of-26, knocking down 60 percent of his threes. He was also by far the best player on his team that night; DeRozan shot a poor 5-of-19, with Lowry outscoring the rest of the Raptors’ starting five on his own.
DeRozan got the win, though. Sure, he was sub-50 percent from the floor (17-of-38), and was helped by some steady complementary efforts by the likes of Cory Joseph, Serge Ibaka (before he tried to punch Robin Lopez and got tossed) and PJ Tucker, but it was still DeRozan who took over in crunch time and OT in domineering fashion. Extra bonus points go DeRozan’s way for besting long-time Raps killer Jimmy Butler, as well as ending a years-long hex the Bulls had cast over Toronto.
Call this one a toss-up. There’s a real chance we see a DeRozan vs. DeRozan match-up in the Elite Eight.
(3) T-Ross’ 51-points – 01/25/14 vs. (11) Pascal’s 44-10-4 in New Orleans – 11/8/1
Welcome to the third match-up of the second round, brought to you by the song “Smooth” by Carlos Santana featuring Rob Thomas.
No second-round tilt features two individual scoring bursts that were so effortless. Ross, a winner by a 72-28 split of the vote over Chris Bosh, enters as the favourite against Siakam, whose all-encompassing 44-point outburst earlier this season proved too much for Donyell Marshall’s most exquisite display of catch-and-shoot bombing.
Career-bests usually don’t come easy; both Ross and Siakam surely disagree. Upon re-watching, these performances are startling in their similarity. In both cases, the victimized parties seemed utterly hopeless to stop Ross and Siakam from doing very mean things to them. New Orleans threw just about every defender in their cache against the Raptors’ All-Star, none of which had a clue where to start. Ross meanwhile left JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley and their other ill-equipped pals both in his dust, and in awe. Both scoring outputs were earned at all three levels. Ross was well-known for his super-easy three-point stroke (probably the nicest in Raps history non-Matt Thomas division) by the time he lit up the Clips; this was one of the first inklings that Siakam’s might be devastating, too. Even the shooting lines — 16-of-29 for Ross, 17-of-28 for Siakam — are in almost dead heat.
This is where I disclose that there’s a framed Terrence Ross photo hanging above the very desk at which this is being written. With that, here’s the video of Ross’ 51-point night:
For the life of me I couldn’t find the video of Siakam’s game. Crazy, I know.
(2) Vince scores 48 vs. Bucks – 11/18/00 vs. (10) Kawhi’s 38 & Game-winner vs. POR – 03/01/19
In a bit of a surprise, only one of Carters’ 40-burgers against Milwaukee advanced beyond round one. It happened in resounding fashion, as Carter bested Mighty Mouse’s heroics against MJ’s Bulls in an 81-19 landslide. Sadly for Walt Williams, he never stood much of a chance against the first of Kawhi’s two multi-bounce game-winners as a Raptor.
While Carter’s second punking of Milwaukee in a calendar year lacked the windmilling pizzazz and aggrieved, Olympic-inspired fury by which Carter was fueled eleven months earlier, his 48-pointer in November 2000 goes down as one of the more punishing games Carter ever played. He bullied the Bucks on the glass for ten boards, including five on the offensive end. A 14-of-31 shooting mark was evened out by his 18 trips to the line, 17 of which were successful. Carter made his name on grace and finesse, but he might just bruise his way to a chip in this tournament.
Leonard on the other hand, is and always has been a straight-up beefcastle. His baskets often leave a wake of deflected defenders, their torsos black and blue having been parried away by Leonard’s bulbous shoulders. Portland was no exception on March 1st of last year. Though if there’s a knock on the second of three remaining Kawhi entries, it’s that aside from the game-winning shot, his line of 38-3-5 on 14-of-22 shooting looks rather normal compared to so many of his other box score lines from last season.
THE JOHN SAUNDERS REGION (VOTE NOW)
(1) Lowry’s 43 leads Raps past Cavs – 2/26/16 vs. (9) Siakam’s 44-10-2 vs Wizards – 2/13/19
Like on the other side of the bracket, the top-seed in the Saunders region coasted by with a 98 percent share of the fan vote, and rightfully so. PJ Tucker’s Raps re-debut was memorable and awesome, but he was essentially a D-3 school taking on a top-seeded Kentucky (or I guess Villanova?) in the matchup with Lowry’s career night. Coming in off a runaway 90-10 upset in the 8-9 matchup is Siakam, who’s up against long odds in his bid to pull out a second-straight upset.
Where this match-up is likely to be decided is in the heft of the games in which both Lowry and Siakam set their career-best scoring marks. Siakam was undeniably brilliant against the Wizards, filling in as the top option as Kawhi Leonard rested up for the postseason run that was later to come, and giving all sorts of reasons to buy into his future as a go-to guy. It was against a lottery-bound Wizards team, though.
Lowry’s masterclass was conducted against the Raptors’ boogeyman, LeBron James, in what was absolutely the biggest game of the 2015-16 Raptors season, and maybe the weightiest non-playoff game the team had ever contested. This feels like another chalk victory for Lowry, who may be the most likely of the three guys with three remaining entries to stay clean into the Elite Eight.
(4) Vince scores 51 on National TV – 2/27/00 vs. (12) Kawhi scores 37 in OT duel with KD – 11/29/18
Leonard’s station in this tournament is certainly threatened. He enters all three of his second-round match-ups — two of which are against Vince — as the betting underdog. You wouldn’t even be crazy to suggest that two of his foes, the top-seeded DeRozan game and this one right here, are among the three or four most likely single-game efforts to win the whole shebang.
Here we see two all-time nationally televised explosions from Raps history square off. Carter’s, as detailed in the breakdown of his first-round match-up with José Calderon, was the game that perhaps more than any other put Toronto on the basketball map. For a guy on a Canadian team to be a perennial All-Star vote chart-topper is a feat that should not be slept on. Vince’s 51-point, nine-rebound slapping of a very good Suns team was “The Carter Effect” condensed into 48 minutes.
It remains to be seen, the far-reaching implications of Kawhi’s lone, title-winning season in Toronto. But based on the fervour with which the nation leapt onto the basketball hype train last season, there’s a good chance that in 15 to 20 years we’ll be talking about “The Leonard Effect” as well. On a late November night, with TNT’s crew on the call, and the Warriors in the house, we witnessed one of the early sparks that would set Canadian hoops ablaze. Leonard’s 37 points didn’t necessarily go shot-for-shot with Kevin Durant that night, but he wasn’t far off.
Carter came with no caveats that night in February, 2000. He should score a close victory here.
(6) OG’s 32 with seven steals @ DEN – 03/01/20 vs. (14) Lowry leads comeback vs. Mavs – 12/22/19
Recency bias, as we learned in the opening round of voting, can often colour our perceptions with a heavy-handed tint. However, neither of the two most recently compiled box scores in this tournament can be accused of benefiting from it. Both of these games ruled, and were deserving of safe passage into round two.
Anunoby pasted Lou Williams with 82 percent of the vote, while Lowry’s 86-14 demolition of Andrea Bargnani’s audition for the Knicks powers him through as the lowest remaining seed.
The same factor that might cost Lowry in his duel with DeMar DeRozan over in the Embry region could very well lift him over his beloved Anunoby here. As tantalizing as Anunoby’s pass-stealing, dunk-yamming, Jokic-annoying 32-7-3-7 effort against Denver was, the fact remains that the Raptors lost the game 133-118.
Lowry’s 32 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists against Dallas don’t represent some unheard of stat accrual for the six-time All-Star, but the circumstances under which he did such damage elevated those numbers like salt and pepper on lamb brains. He tested the limits of what “Lowry plus four guys” lineups can do. He erased a 30-point deficit by sheer force of will.
If the end result doesn’t matter, OG’s game stands a chance. If it does, the tournament’s Cinderella story should stay alive.
(2) Bosh scores 40-5-5 vs. Dwight’s Magic – 2/20/08 vs. (10) Serge scores 34 & 10 @ LAL – 11/4/18
Closing out the second round we have one of the more intriguing match-ups, if not one of the super high stakes ones. This feels like a little two fun mid-majors meeting in round two, knowing it’s all gravy that both advanced past opening day.
Bosh of course is no slouch as a two seed, though his 64 percent share of the vote against Keon Clark’s 12-block game was the third-narrowest margin of victory for any of the Sweet Sixteen’s contestants. Frankly, I think Clark was robbed. But that’s fine. Ibaka pulled the upset over the seven-seed Mike James, getting four fifths of the vote; a shockingly easy cakewalk for Ma Fuzzy Chef.
What makes this match-up fun is the parallels between Bosh and Ibaka’s playing styles, and the ways in which they were implemented in their respective big time nights. Both were mid-range marksmen, both were incredibly efficient (96% True Shooting for Bosh, 93 for Ibaka), and both helped lift the Raptors over nemeses that had haunted them in the past. This feels like Bosh’s match-up to lose, but do not underestimate the “How Bored Are You?” bump.
Be sure to vote for who you think should advance to the Elite Eight at the links provided, and check back next Thursday as we move one step closer to The Final Four.