TORONTO -- Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas almost checked into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, but Dwane Casey held back. Valanciunas has not played since he sprained his ankle on May 7 in Game 3 of the second round against the Heat. The Raptors coach decided against throwing him out there in the middle of an intense battle with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the plan is to reintegrate him in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Valanciunas was Toronto's most consistent player for the first three weeks of the postseason. Indiana and Miami had little success in keeping him off the glass unless he was on the bench with foul trouble. More than any other time in his four years with the Raptors, guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked for him off pick-and-rolls and in the post. This made for a more diversified offense.
A strong 7-footer with a soft touch and an effective post game, Valanciunas' game is a throwback. Most teams do not have a scorer like him on the inside. Cleveland has played three big men for most of the playoffs: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye. It is easy to imagine Valanciunas bullying all of them.
"Valanciunas brings a physical presence," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said Monday. "He brings a post presence, gives them a chance to slow the basketball down, and he can score down low. With his presence it gives a different dynamic to their team outside of just a jump-shooting team and two guards attacking. So it's a different look for us, but we'll be ready for it."
Lue said the flow of the game would dictate whether or not he would put the 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov back in the picture. Mozgov might be the Cavs' best answer for Valanciunas, but they become slower and less dangerous offensively when he's on the court. If Valanciunas can force Lue's hand by dominating in the paint, it would make it easier to stop Cleveland on the other end.
The conundrum for Casey, though, is that he does not want Valanciunas to be chasing 3-point shooters around the perimeter. It is difficult to ask Valanciunas to stick with Frye and Love when he's feeling 100 percent, let alone coming off an ankle injury. When the Cavs scored on 14 straight possessions late in Game 4, most of the damage was done with a lineup of Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, LeBron James and Frye. In that situation, there is nowhere to hide Valanciunas without risk.
"Hopefully we can get him involved," Casey said Tuesday. "It depends on the lineup they have on the court. I know he's our starting center but it's tough to put him out there if they're playing Channing Frye big minutes at the 5."
How much does it help Toronto if Valanciunas is making 2's but giving up open 3's to Cleveland's shooters? The answer depends on whether or not the 3's are going in. In the Cavs' two sweeps, they shot better than any team in history from long range, attempting an average of 36.3 3-pointers in eight games and making 46.2 percent of them. Against the Raptors, they've shot 33.3 percent from deep and the number of attempts has fluctuated wildly from game to game.
Even within games, there is variation -- Cleveland shot 3-for-22 in the first half of Game 4 and 10-for-19 in the second half. Regardless of the results, though, Toronto knows it has a better chance of contesting the shots with Bismack Biyombo on the court.
Biyombo, Valanciunas' backup for most of the season, earned an MVP chant from the crazed Air Canada Centre crowd in the final seconds on Monday. He does not have Valanciunas' gifts with the ball in his hands, but he can guard just about anybody in the league. The Raptors would not be alive without him.
"When our 5-man has the ability to play perimeter players, it helps us when we have to switch," Casey said. "Especially when they're playing Love at the 5 or Frye at the 5. It gives us the flexibility to be able to switch to Bismack onto them. It helped us in the other series. It's a luxury that we have that. We know we have Jonas, who is more of an interior center, but it's really been a luxury for us."
In Toronto's two wins over the Cavs, Biyombo has played a total of 81 minutes and grabbed 40 rebounds. Every Cavalier has been aware of him when attacking the basket. Valanciunas' return gives Casey another weapon, but figuring out the rotation will be a balancing act. With Biyombo playing like this, Valanciunas will have to earn every minute he gets.