| October 4, 2021, 11:25 PM
October 4, 2021, 11:25 PM
We take for granted the rhythms of “normal life” until they get interrupted, and everything is turned on its head.
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers has been living an NBA life for 35 years as a player, and coach, and there were some things he missed desperately after a season-and-then-some played during the weirdness of the pandemic.
And there were some things he missed about working in Toronto, specifically, where he hadn’t visited since Dec. 11, 2019, when he was coaching the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I feel like I’m sucking up to Toronto right now and I don’t want to say it, but I just love the fans [here] they just have this different energy,” he said before his 76ers became the first visiting NBA team to take the floor at Scotiabank Arena since Feb. 28, 2020. They were greeted by 9,900 fans — half the normal capacity, but a promise of things to come.
“… I just love how [Toronto fans] approach the games, I do,” said Rivers. “It’s nice coming back to fans, just period, around the league. It’s nice being booed, hearing obscenities … it’s kind of a nice feel, just to be back in normal life.”
But if it was return to normal for so many — it was a family reunion behind the scenes at SBA as arena staff got to see each other for the first time and visited with familiar faces from their familiar stations — it was also something completely different for many of the Raptors’ new guard.
Only four players on the 20-man training camp roster have played in Toronto for the Raptors. Two of them — Pascal Siakam (recovering from shoulder surgery) and Chris Boucher (out for a month after surgery this past weekend to realign a dislocated middle finger on his left hand) weren’t in the lineup. (Also missing were Gary Trent Jr., due to quad soreness and Khem Birch, due to health and safety protocols).
Most prominent among the newcomers is Scottie Barnes, the No. 4 pick in the draft who started for the Raptors in his first quasi-NBA game.
It was by design. The Raptors have no plans to ease him in. They want him handling the ball, leading the break and even surveying the defence in the half court. In his first game against NBA competition, he was given the run of the place, and largely delivered as advertised.
“Nothing different from what we’ve been saying or seeing,” was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s post-game assessment. “Just kind of a little bit of everything, bringing the ball, finding a way to get it in the bucket here and there, making some passes. He’s a good, versatile, multi-dimensional guy.”
Nurse even went as far as limiting the early minutes for second-year point guard Malachi Flynn so that Barnes wouldn’t have to defer to a more traditional point guard in the second unit.
Overall? It worked out really well. The Raptors shook off a slow — or even bad — start to give Rivers and the 76ers a traditional Raptors blowout that was never as close as the 123-107 final score might suggest. As is tradition, Sixers star Joel Embiid was scoreless — though it’s only fair to point out that the Philly big man didn’t dress for the game, and Embiid-stopper Marc Gasol is no longer in the NBA.
But things started especially slowly for Barnes, the energetic six-foot-nine wing who the Raptors envision as the ideal for the position-less basketball they are trying to make part of their identity.
His first touch was a turnover, where he grabbed a loose ball on defence, pivoted to push it up court and threw a pass directly into the arms of Sixers guard Seth Curry, who was about 10 feet in front of him. A minute later Georges Niang — no one’s idea of a burner — gave Barnes his first NBA blow-by.
A couple more minutes passed and Barnes picked up his first foul, reaching on Andre Drummond and sending the Sixers big man to the line for a chance for a three-point play. There was another sloppy turnover. It wasn’t pretty.
He did thread a couple of nice passes — one to a cutting Goran Dragic out of a post-up, another while leading the break and finding a trailing Fred VanVleet for three, so there was that.
But there was an awkwardness to Barnes’ game when he started and shared the floor with veteran point guards Fred VanVleet and Goran Dragic.
“That’s a thing we’ll have to figure out,” said VanVleet. “I think he was a lot more comfortable with other bench guys out there with him. That second run he had was always a lot better than the run he had with the starters but that’s always a fine balance of trying to play with other top players. I think that stuff will take some time, but it’s there, you see it.
“He can bring the ball up the floor, he can pass. He can add some stuff off the bounce, he’s strong enough. Again, if you go out there with that energy and passion for the game and you have any type of ability, you’ll tend to figure it out.”
Barnes is not lacking for self-belief, regardless of who he’s on the floor with.
“I’m just going to try to play my game,” Barnes said. “We’re still trying to feel each other out. Really get a good feel for each other. I wouldn’t say it’s no pressure at all. Like I said, we’re still just getting a good feel for each other.”
Things began to turn midway through the first quarter when Dalano Banton — the first Toronto-born player to be drafted by his hometown team — checked in to a warm greeting from the crowd. The Raptors were trailing 21-11 at the time and Banton changed the flow of the game. On his first touch the six-foot-nine point guard grabbed a defensive rebound, sprinted the floor with the ball and found Svi Mykhailiuk for a lay-up. A moment later, Banton kept it for himself.
Soon Barnes checked in and the Raptors were playing a five-man lineup where the shortest player was six-foot-six rookie Justin Champagnie.
The Raptors closed the first half on a 17-4 run with plenty of transition scoring, fueled by Sixers misses and turnovers as they tried to move through the Raptors’ five-man swarm of fast-moving arms and legs.
“That’s what we want it to look like right there, I don’t know if we can duplicate that 100 more times, but that’s the goal,” said VanVleet. “Credit to those guys, they came in and played with incredible spirit and energy and that’s all you can ask for new guys, young guys especially …that energy and that passion will carry you a long ways in the league and they’re doing everything the right way so it’s hard to be mad at anything they’re doing. Now will it always work? Probably not, but it’s a good start.”
On this night they never let up. A 39-29 second quarter allowed the Raptors to take a 67-54 lead into the half. The peak moment came when Banton hit a cutting Barnes for a layup and, a minute later, Barnes made a clever no-look pass to a cutting Yuta Watanabe. It was a lot of tall guys cutting and running and sharing the ball and not a traditional point guard or centre in sight.
Toronto followed up with a 33-23 third quarter and the blowout was officially in play.
There were plenty of encouraging signs to go around.
After his shaky start, Barnes was as advertised, counting 13 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two steals in 25 minutes as he made plays, finished plays and stopped plays.
Banton continues to look like a second-round find as he pushed the pace at every chance and finished with six points, five rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes. More importantly the team seemed to play more fluidly with him on the floor. His five turnovers – more than one off long full-court passes he tried to force into tight windows in transition – will have to come down, but he’s got the rest of his career for that.
Watanabe, signed off a two-way deal a last season, looks more confident and decisive, giving Nurse another six-foot-nine ballhandler who can make plays for himself and others on offence and can switch multiple positions on defence. He added 10 points.
As well, six-foot-eight Mykhailiuk looks like someone who can provide a bit of pop off the bench, as he finished with 13 in 23 minutes. OG Anunoby led eight Raptors with at least eight points, finishing with 21 in his 25 minutes.
Things aren’t the same as they were the last time the Raptors played in Toronto. But the Raptors handling the Sixers at Scotiabank Arena, even with a new cast?
It felt like old times.