From the time that the New Orleans Pelicans signed up guard Axel Toupane to a 10-day deal, just hours after he put up 41 points in a 1st round matchup, most D-League pundits (including myself) have doubted whether the Raptors 905 had what it took to become D-League champions. That uncertainty was due to vital Toupane was to the infrastructure of the 905. From the beginning of the season, Toupane stood as one of the best all-around players in the entire NBADL due to his ability to defend multiple positions, while also shining as a fantastic facilitator and scorer.
Despite losing Toupane, the 905 were able to just glide their way through the opening round matchup against the Canton Charge. In that series-clinching game, the 905 just man-handled the Charge to the tune of a 108-90 victory. That victory was led by the fantastic defensive play of RidiculousUpside’s Defensive Player of the Year Edy Tavares, who had eight blocks in only 25 minutes. Those eight blocks put Tavares alongside Chris Obekpa and Greg Stiemsma.
While the 905 were excited about moving onto the Eastern Conference Finals, they’d face yet another challenge. Just three days before the 905 were set to face the Maine Red Claws in that series, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed Tavares to replace Larry Sanders, a player that the team released despite just signing him in March. Those losses seemed to put the 905 at a huge disadvantage as both Tavares and Toupane stood as the biggest factors behind the team being the best squad in the entire D-League.
With Tavares and Toupane in the NBA, the 905’s depth was put to the test when the team began their series against the Red Claws in the Eastern Conference Finals. In a typical world, the Red Claws put at an immediate advantage due to those losses while also being able to open up Game 1 in front of the home-town crowd. However, the 905 aren’t your typical D-League team.
On a Sunday afternoon in a jam-packed Portland Exposition Center, the 905 shocked the D-League world with a jaw-dropping 109-85 victory over the Maine Red Claws. That blowout victory was led by 905 forward CJ Leslie, who had 33 points and 11 rebounds on 12-18 from the field, 3-7 from beyond the arc and 6-11 from the FT line in only 21 minutes.
That kind of outburst came as a huge surprise due to Leslie’s standing as the 905’s main defensive workhorse. While he’s always been capable of scoring on that end of the court, Leslie has stood more of a role player than anything else. Leslie’s status as a role player was evident by him averaging 11.7 points per game on 54% from the field. Most of those scores came through him crashing the offensive boards or making strong cuts to the rim, whether it’s through on or off-ball situations.
However, Leslie was able to add on to that repertoire on Sunday afternoon as he did his best impersonation of Brady Heslip by shooting 3-7 from beyond the arc. That comparison to Heslip isn’t total hyperbole as he showed the kind of confidence from beyond the arc that you wouldn’t expect from a player that hasn’t shot better than 33% from the field during his entire basketball career. With Maine not hesitating to put a hand in his face, Leslie was comfortably able to spot up and launch a perimeter jumper.
Coinciding with that surprising perimeter stroke, Leslie was able to put up 33 points in the same way that he’s been able to do for the entire D-League season. During that Sunday night game, Leslie was regularly able to use his solid handles to cut through the Red Claws D and ultimately make his way towards the rim. Once he makes it there, Leslie regularly finishes with strong rim-rocking dunks.
With that fantastic game one performance, CJ Leslie has showcased that he can step up and become an offensive leader whenever Stackhouse demands him to be. Will he be asked to maintain that role when the team returns to Mississauga for Gmae 2? We’re going to wait and see when the series continues on Wednesday night.