Terrence Ross is listening, kind of, but he’s looking at his phone. There’s a random text there and he’s trying to figure out who it is from. He’s got eyes for his phone only.
“I don’t even know who that is,” he says.
The interview continues. He keeps fiddling with his phone.
A 22-year-old being distracted by a phone is hardly uncommon but we offer it only as an illustration that Ross, the struggling Toronto Raptors shooting guard, presents himself in the heightened atmosphere of the NBA post-season comes as a little young, and with his focus not entirely in the present moment.
The Raptors are trailing the Brooklyn Nets 2-1 with Game 4 of their first-round, best-of-seven series tipping off Sunday night. The two teams are closely matched: they’ve played seven times this season and are separated by just five points.
Apart from payroll — including luxury taxes the Nets are spending an NBA-record $190 million on their veteran-laden lineup — the biggest difference between them at the moment is at the two-guard spot.
The genial Ross has yet to show a hint of what made him a revelation of sorts for the Raptors after he became a starter in the wake of the Rudy Gay trade.
In those 62 games Ross averaged 12.2 points a game while shooting 40 percent from the three-point line.
In his three-game NBA playoff career the second-year player out of Oregon has struggled mightily, connecting on just two of 11 threes and making just one other shot that wasn’t a three. He’s also turned it over six times — more than double the rate for the regular season and a scary number considering he’s rarely expected to handle the ball.
On the other side? The Nets counter with six-foot-seven, 240-pound Joe Johnson, who is nearly destroying the Raptors himself.
Johnson is earning $21.5 million in the fourth year of his six-year, $124 million contract, but the way he’s playing in this series the quiet 32-year-old is worth every penny.
Johnson is averaging 23.7 points on an effortless 60.2 percent shooting. If the Raptors are defending him, he’s not feeling it. Johnson is using his wide body to get into the lane or carve out position on the block at will and his connecting on ridiculous 64.7 percent of his two-point attempts — 22-of-34.
Ross can only dream of those numbers, but if the Raptors are going to have any chance in Game 4 at the very least he has to find a way to at least get close to his season averages.
“He’s got to just play basketball,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “That’s the tough thing about the playoffs. You want to give them everything, you want to give them information [but] he’s got to go out and play. It’s about his rhythm, his comfort level.
“It’s about comfort and having a feel for the game and the only way to go through it is to go through it.”
The quandary for Casey heading into Game 4 is: how much leash to you give Ross, knowing that if he can find his game vs. Johnson — “hold serve,” Casey said — he could be the difference?
“The decision hasn’t been made but we will look at it,” Casey said Saturday. “It’s not panic time, but we do have to look at that position and get more productivity out of that spot.”
It’s a long way from Jan. 25 when Ross tied a Raptors franchise record with 51 points in a wide-open, defence optional version of a regular season game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“It’s more intense, it’s the playoffs,” says Ross. “Everything is more amplified, they’re a lot more dialed in. It’s a lot different.”
On Friday night there were signs that Ross is close: an aggressive drive to the basket in the first quarter that rolled out; a nice pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson that should have been a lay-up for Johnson had he not drifted into the corner; instead it was a turnover for Ross. A moment later Ross was leading a 2-on-1 and mistimed a pass for Patrick Patterson giving him his third turnover of the first quarter.
That was pretty much it for him as Ross barely played in the second half as Casey leaned on Greivis Vasquez.
“I’m pretty confident,” he says. “I feel like as soon as I catch my groove I’ll be all right.
“I just need to find my rhythm, it’s a whole different feeling that the regular season. Once you get that one shot, that one thing to get you that rhythm you can carry it on.”
Ross says he’s been putting in extra shots and feels like he’s close to regaining his form:
“I’m patient, I let it come to me,” he says. “If you get nervous or rattled it just throws you off more so you just have to relax and let it come to you and when it does come, harness it and focus in on it. “
The Raptors can only hope Ross finally answers the call.