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.
We’re well past the realm of pretenders now.
Welcome to the Elite Eight of the Greatest Raptors Regular Season Performances of All-Time Tournament — the GRRSPoAT for short of course. This past weekend, a field of 16 was chopped in half to create the regional semifinal match-ups before you today. And as was the case in the opening round, while there were some disagreements between your one-man committee and the will of the people, most of the results made some amount of the sense. Note the keyword: most.
Here were my personal choices, and the voting splits at the time I made my picks.
Seven of the eight remaining single-game efforts by some of your most beloved Raptors legends are still alive today because you chose them to be. There was, however, one ugly duckling in the second-round voting process that could not go unchecked.
In the 4 vs. 12 match-up between Vince Carter’s 51-point explosion on NBC — the franchise’s true arrival on the national stage — and Kawhi Leonard’s 37 points in a winning effort over the Warriors and a fire-spewing Kevin Durant, something went wrong. Leonard’s game was awesome, that I am not here to deny. But there is no way it was awesome enough to best Carter with a 60-40 share of the vote. It’s with an extreme dose of not-mad disappointment that I must declare the 60 percent of folks who voted for Kawhi to be objectively wrong.
Look, I get it. We’re all cooped up inside, socially distancing like good citizens should. But being responsible comes at a price. Confinement can throw you for a loop, and that loop can result in the erroneous selection of what was a great-not-transcendent Leonard game over one of the most iconic games in Raps history. Recency bias is a scourge.
So it’s with deep understanding that everyone’s going through it a little bit right now that I’ve made the executive decision to advance Carter to the Elite Eight, and send the Kawhi game packing. It did not feel right to have a final eight in a bracket about Raptors doing incredible things without a single entry from the guy whose DNA was literally said to be 50 percent comprised of Amazing.
With that slightly problematic exertion of emergency powers out of the way, we enter the regional semis with six different guys in contention for the crown. All three of Kyle Lowry’s entries cruised through the Sweet Sixteen with no margin of victory less than 60-40. He’s joined by one-off appearances by DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Leonard, Carter, and Serge Ibaka. Both two seeds met their end in the second round, while three double-digit seeds are still kicking — one of which is guaranteed passage to the Final Four.
Let’s run through today’s four match-ups.
WAYNE EMBRY REGIONAL SEMIFINALS
(1) DeMar DeRozan scores 52p vs. Bucks – 1/1/18 vs. (4) Kyle Lowry duels Steph Curry – 12/5/15
As I detailed ahead of the first round, I seeded each game in the field according to Basketball Reference’s Game Score metric. I didn’t sow seeds of high stakes drama with strategic early-round placements. Though I wouldn’t blame you if I thought I did with the first of our regional semis.
Here you have two best pals, their basketball lives and legacies already intertwined forever, in their second head-to-head match-up in the Embry Region in as many rounds. DeRozan’s top-seeded career night rides high into the Elite Eight after scoring the most lopsided victory of the second round — an 84-16 demolition of Leonard’s 45-point game against the Jazz last year. But how comfortable can DeRozan really be feeling right now, after his 42-point punking of Jimmy Butler’s Bulls fell in a 62-38 decision to his old backcourt buddy’s 41-point duel with Steph Curry back in 2015?
DeMar’s case to move on is formed out of concrete fact. Per Basketball Reference, no Raptor has ever put up a more prolific box score than DeRozan did against the Bucks that New Year’s Day. To shoot 17-of-29, including 5-of-9 from three, against a Bucks team boasting a burgeoning Giannis Antetokounmpo next to Khris Middleton on the wings is no small feat. This was DeRozan at the height of his playmaking powers — an all-encompassing performance that validated the Raptors’ adoption of the vaunted “Culture Reset” offense. This wasn’t an evening of hero ball, but that doesn’t mean DeRozan’s efforts were anything short of heroic.
Lowry’s hopes, meanwhile, hinge on outside factors a little more. How much will it weigh on the minds of voters that the Raptors lost that game against the undefeated Warriors? Does it matter that Steph Curry’s 44-point night was several orders of magnitude better than what the best members of the Bucks could muster in DeRozan’s best game? How do you account for the fact that Lowry essentially kept the Raptors in the game that December night on his own? It’s worth noting that Lucas Nogueira (14-4-3 on 7-of-9) was decidedly the second-best Raptor that night.
DeRozan’s record-setting night is probably in the driver’s seat here. But unlike in the next match-up, there is no wrong answer.
(3) T-Ross’ 51-points – 01/25/14 vs. (10) Kawhi’s 38 & Game-winner vs. POR – 03/01/19
You guys sure made Terrence Ross’ loyal follower(s) sweat. Pitted against Pascal Siakam’s 44-point game from earlier this season, Ross’ evening of most splendid bucketry barely pulled out the round two win, earning 53 percent of the vote — tied for the closest Sweet Sixteen duel. Across the aisle is Leonard, who managed a 10-over-2 upset of Vince Carter’s brutish 48-point night against the Bucks in November 2000. That result makes a little more sense than the overturned Kawhi-over-Vince decision. Even with 10 fewer points on Leonard’s ledger, the predictive elements of his first multi-bounce game-winner from the right corner understandably add a lot of juice to his lone-remaining tournament entry.
Of the four match-ups we’re discussing today, this is the one that would make for the most riveting one-on-one game. Ross, in the same unconscious form he assumed on his 51-point night, might have been just brazen enough to defy Leonard’s immense defensive gifts. You can’t pick-pocket the ball if it’s being hoisted from 30 feet directly into your eyeball — just ask Willie Green.
Leonard’s demolition of the Blazers was remarkable, yes. But the issue with his case against Ross’ most outstanding night is how little his 38-3-5 against Portland stands out against the backdrop of his season in Toronto. He consistently excelled to the point that each of the 22 games in which he scored 30-plus kind of run together in the mind. Before some truly transcendent stuff out of Leonard in the postseason, last year was more or less a blur of superstardom, one methodical evening of taking names bleeding into the next. Leonard has his playoff glory and his Finals MVP. He’s got his back-breaking offensive rebounds, the fourth quarter of Game 5 in Milwaukee, and two landmark shots over Joel Embiid. He even said the quiet part loud; the 2018-19 season was all about the playoffs, and that mindset paid off lavishly. Leonard surely won’t recall any of his stuffed regular-season stat lines compared to what he did in the spring. Ross, meanwhile, reached his career pinnacle the night he canned 51. Give this one to the guy who not only deserves it, but will appreciate it most.
Ross belongs in the Final Four.
JOHN SAUNDERS REGIONAL SEMIFINALS
(1) Lowry’s 43 leads Raps past Cavs – 2/26/16 vs. *(4) Vince scores 51 on National TV – 2/27/00
What on earth do you even do with this one?
In the first Saunders Region semi, we have the two pillars of the two most successful eras in Raptors history, on arguably their best individual nights as pros. Lowry made quick work of Siakam’s 44-point night against Washington last season, with a 64 percent share of the voting. Vince is here because I said so.
What an absurd Lowry game this one was. With more hype that had ever been attached to a Raps regular-season game, and a legitimate and important race for the top seed very much hanging over the proceedings, Lowry delivered like it was a Finals-clinching game in Oakland. Before the specter of the Cavs came to haunt the Raps and their fans in later years, this was a game that offered hope that maybe LeBron James and friends could be bested — all they needed was 43 points, five boards and nine assists on a hilarious 15-of-20 shooting from their point guard to do it. This was a game that put the demons of the 2015 playoffs firmly in the rearview, and hinted at the Conference Finals potential that year’s team would eventually come to realize. With a dude this cold-blooded at the reigns, the Raptors could talk themselves into having a shot against anyone:
As deserved as Lowry is of the top seed in the region, there’s a chance this could also be the first L he’s handed in the tournament. Vince’s 51 capped off a transformative month for the Raptors franchise, wherein a team of young studs and sage vets stuck in northern anonymity became mainstream darlings. Of course Carter and Tracy McGrady owning the dunk contest got that ball rolling, but Vince taking the deed to Jason Kidd’s Suns made the Raptors’ momentum unstoppable.
Flip a coin once, twice, a hundred times — this is the closest third-round match-up we’ve got.
(14) Lowry leads comeback vs. Mavs – 12/22/19 vs. (10) Serge scores 34 & 10 @ LAL – 11/4/18
Is that the merry band of dress-crafting mice from Cinderella I hear singing?
Our final Elite Eight match-up sees two lower-seeded upstarts square off, though their roads through round two were quite different. Despite being the lowest remaining seed, Lowry’s team-carrying effort against Dallas from earlier this year crushed the career night OG Anunoby put together two years ago on March 1st, 2020. Only DeRozan’s margin of victory topped Lowry’s 77 percent share of the vote. This is no ordinary 14-seed.
Ibaka on the other hand, took down an all-time Chris Bosh game in a narrow 53-47 vote to continue his upset trail through the bracket. Though the seeding suggests Ibaka enters the regional semi as a favourite, Vegas would probably take Lowry to move on if Vegas were invested in such things. Considering the dearth of other sports going on, perhaps they should be.
Ibaka’s up against the brilliance of Lowry on two different fronts here. Not only was the Lowry-engineered 30-point comeback against Dallas the kind of thing that makes brick walls quiver in fear, but there’s a good case to be made that Ibaka’s career-best night does not happen without Lowry doing his Lowry thing. Ibaka was a dead-eye triggerman that night in LA; 15-of-17 lines don’t come easy, and Ibaka was lethally accurate no matter the means by which he received the ball. Per NBA.com’s pass-tracking stats, though, seven of Ibaka’s field goals that night were assisted by Lowry. If the “individual” element of the individual performances bracket matters a lot to you, then it’s going to be tough to cast a vote for Ibaka.
That’s especially true when you consider just how Herculean Lowry’s exploits against the Mavs were. He scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the final frame that December afternoon, chipping in two assists, and making the scarcely-used four-man supporting cast of Malcolm Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher sing. This was individuality in its purest form. Factoring the voting bump that recency has provided in the tournament thus far, Lowry’s lowest-seeded entry into the tournament isn’t just a threat to advance to the Final Four. It just might win the whole damn thing.
Be sure to vote at the links provided, and check back on Saturday as we tee up the Final Four.