BROOKLYN - As the Raptors' opening round series shifts back into quasi must-win territory on Sunday, their playoff lives could rest on the shoulders of a 23-year-old sophomore, who is already having a tough time adjusting to the pressure of his first postseason.
Through three games with the Nets, Toronto has yet to play its best basketball, the easiest explanation for their 2-1 series deficit. Its under-performing starting small forward, Terrence Ross, has been a primary factor.
Stepping in for the traded Rudy Gay early in the season, Ross played an under-appreciated role in the Raptors' turnaround and push to the playoffs. From Dec. 8 onwards, the second-year guard-turned-forward averaged 12.2 points, nearly doubling his pre-trade scoring mark while logging an addition 10 minutes a night. He shot the three-ball at an impressive 40 per cent clip and became Toronto's most relied upon perimeter defender.
Since making his playoff debut a week ago, Ross has looked like a fish out of water. Despite starting all three games and playing an average of 21 minutes, he's hit just three of his 16 jumpers while looking overwhelmed on defence against Brooklyn's bigger, more physical wing players.
Overall, the Raptors have gotten just 4.7 points per game from the small forward position, good for last among the NBA's 16 playoff teams by a wide margin. With Friday's 102-98 loss in the back of his mind, Dwane Casey wouldn't rule out the possibility of a lineup change for Sunday's crucial Game 4.
"We're still going to look at that," Casey said following a Saturday afternoon practice on the campus of a nearby university in New York City. "The decision hasn't been made but we will look at it. Right now we don't want to do anything drastic."
"It's not panic time, but we do have to look at that position and get more productivity out of that spot."
It's been the most problematic conundrum Casey has had to wrestle with in this series. The Raptors do not have an easy answer for Joe Johnson's unique combination of size, strength and finesse. The Nets' crafty veteran - listed at 6-foot-7, 240 lbs - has had Toronto's number in nearly every facet of the game. He can beat you from midrange, post-up smaller players and he's deadly from beyond the arc.
"We have been double teaming him and blitzing him and he's been getting a lot of his [points] in those one-on-one situations," Casey pointed out.
Defensively, Landry Fields has had the most individual success against Johnson. Casey turned to the sparingly used forward in Game 2, a well-received lineup adjustment that helped neutralize Johnson in the fourth quarter and spark Toronto's comeback victory. Johnson would go on to lead the Nets with 29 points in Friday's Game 3 but was held scoreless, missing both of his shots, in seven first-half minutes with Fields guarding him.
However, Fields was limited to just eight minutes in the loss. This time the Nets had prepared for him. Anticipating his reluctance to shoot, Brooklyn used Fields' defender to apply even more pressure to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. With Jonas Valanciunas in foul trouble, Fields shared the floor with Tyler Hansbrough - another player the defence can afford to overlook - and the Raptors' offence took an immediate hit.
"It's give and take," Casey said in regards to utilizing Fields in this series. "You sacrifice some offence for defence. I thought he did a heck of a job [defensively] but you do suffer in your spacing."
John Salmons returned to the rotation, scoring four points in 12 minutes on Friday after sitting out in Game 2. The 35-year-old has battled lingering back pain while struggling with his jumper. He too has been exposed by Johnson.
"We've got to find ways to get them the ball," Casey said of Fields and Salmons. "Whether it's cutting, screening, running the floor, so that we get something from that spot [and] they can't just load up and go 5-on-4 at the defensive end. We want to make sure we do get something offensively out of that position."
Their best chance is to get Ross going. Fields moves well without the ball and gives you consistent effort on defence, Salmons brings a certain veteran savvy that has been useful in the past but Ross - when right - is the two-way contributor Toronto desperately needs to gain the upper hand in this series.
For the young Ross, boosting his confidence could be the key to unleashing the natural ability he has displayed throughout his second season. It could be something as simple as seeing an early shot fall, getting a big first-quarter stop or throwing down one of his trademark slam dunks.
"He's still the same Terrence," DeRozan said Saturday. "We all understand everybody's not going to have their best night [all the time]. We all understand that. Our job is to keep everybody's confidence high."
Through three playoff games, Ross and fellow sophomore Jonas Valanciunas - who leads the Raptors in turnovers - have the worst +/- on the team. Toronto has allowed 24 more points than it's scored with Ross on the floor, outscored by 21 with Valanciunas on the floor. The Raptors are the only playoff team to feature two second-year players in their starting lineup. Their inexperience and overall importance to the future of this franchise is largely responsible for the leash they've been given.
"If they weren't young guys, if that wasn't our future, our direction, they probably wouldn't be in there with some of the mistakes they're making," Casey admitted. "But, they're our guys. They've got to learn, it's their first playoffs. I expect most of their mistakes. We're going to ride with them in those situations."
"It's tougher, but a big part of the reason we're here is because of their play. I'm not blind to the fact they are our future and the only way we're going to learn is to go through it. The amount of time might be a little shorter, but they've got to get out there."
Regardless of his role, Ross will continue to play. Yes, win or lose this is a valuable learning experience for the 23-year-old but more than anything else, Casey knows how quickly the complexion of this series could change if Ross' shots begin to fall. For Ross, the player, that would mean more confidence and likely a more engaged defensive effort, even if he can't guard Johnson one-on-one. For the team it could aid their spacing, take the pressure off Lowry and DeRozan and breathe life into their suffocating offence.