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Against the Wolves, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played like his playoff minutes were on the line

Playing small-ball centre might be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s only path to post-season minutes. On Monday he showed why he just might be cut out for it.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Nurse began Monday evening discussing the longest winning streak of his coaching career — not the 14-game heater his Raptors were on going into their game against the Wolves, but rather a 16-gamer his Rio Grande Valley Vipers strung together to close their championship 2013 season.

The G-League, of course, is renowned for its knack of throwing daily wrenches into coaches’ plans. The list of available dudes can change on whim, even up to a couple hours before tip.

Such uncertainty isn’t always confined to the minors. Around 5pm Monday, word trickled in that Serge Ibaka would miss the game with an illness, prompting Nick Nurse to channel that old G-League MacGyver spirit.

“You gotta come up with some stuff,” Nick Nurse said after the game.

That “stuff” proved to be a small-ball look pitting emergency centre Rondae Hollis-Jefferson against noted large man Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns and his new-look Minnesota team had their moments exploiting the relative lack of rim protection Toronto rolled out. Adjusted for height though, RHJ emerged from the match-up safely in the green.

Everyone knows about Hollis-Jefferson’s defense. It’s quite good, and can be applied to just about any position on the floor. What wasn’t totally clear ahead of Monday’s game was whether his hounding defense would play up against guys of the brutish, 7-foot milieu. As Nurse detailed after the game, he wasn’t even certain if Rondae should get the Towns assignment in the lead up to tip.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of other options,” Nurse admitted after the game. “We did talk about about starting OG and Pascal at the four-five and maybe starting Terence (Davis), but in the end we decided to go at him with Rondae.”

In response to Nurse’s lasminute decision to decision, Hollis-Jefferson kicked the Wolves’ asses for each of the 34 minutes he roamed the middle. Small sample yaddah yaddah, his 110.1 on-court defensive rating was tops on the team in a game in which defense was largely absent on both sides. Outside of Fred VanVleet, no Raptor’s trips to the bench brought on more toil to Toronto than Rondae’s.

Per NBA.com:

In the one-one matchup with the Towns, Hollis-Jefferson nobly held up the back line of the defense. Over 24 possessions and about five and a half minutes of game time per NBA.com’s match-up data, Rondae tormented the Wolves Fortnite-addicated man child; Minnesota scored just 23 points in those possessions. Every other Raptor-on-Towns alignment surrendered north of a point per possession. Hanging just tight enough in single coverage on Towns was the secret sauce to grinding the Wolves offense to if not a full stop, then a grating churn.

“He’s going to play hard, and he’s strong. He can kind of get underneath [Towns] and lean on him there a little bit a least, try to fight the catch,” said Nurse post-game. “You know that’s kind of the important part of post defense, a lot of it is how far can you push him out to make him make that initial catch?”

That sturdy post position comes at a price for someone of Hollis-Jefferson’s build — he was sure to remind reporters after punking the 7-foot Towns that he was measured at just six-four and a half at his combine. Asked where he feels the force of a giant backing into him most: “Everywhere.”

With it now established that he can withstand the pounding of beefy bigs, there would seem to be no limit to the ways in which Hollis-Jefferson can help the Raptors defend. The trick when things matter most, however, will be to milk enough offensive utility out of him to make his defensive talents worth rolling out there. Stuck in a bind on Monday night, we saw a little glimpse of how the Raptors might be able make the floor balance work with their lone non-shooter out there (Patrick McCaw’s even at 37.5% on two attempts a game these days). If there’s a pathway to real playoff minutes for RHJ, it’ll be as a small-ball centre.

“Rondae kind of plays like a five man a little bit, even though he’s only 6’5 or 6’6, whatever he is,” said Nurse. “So he plays in the dunker, he screens, he rolls.”

Having Hollis-Jefferson as the screener on offense will be the only way to make his fit tenable in a playoff environment. You can’t space him out to a corner. No one guards him, he rarely feels compelled to rise and fire from deep, and even if he did, he’s shooting 2-of-16 on exclusively wide open looks this season. Toronto’s offense works because each sequence can start and end just about anywhere on the floor; cordoning off a whole side of the court runs counter to everything Nurse holds dear.

Roaming the middle of the court opens up Rondae to do the things he’s passable at — short-rolling and finding cutters, diving to the rim to put up lay-up tries, and crashing the offensive glass after he bricks them. At just a smidge over 50-percent shooting at the rim this season, the margin for error with him out there is super thin. Even with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol set to return to the lineup at some point, the Raptors might want to toy with RHJ as a roller a little more this year just to see if he can refine that touch along with th chemistry with his guards; it might be the difference between the Raptors having access to his full-spectrum defense and not in the spring.

As he detailed after his 21-point, six-rebound, 8-of-13 evening against the Wolves, the transition to playing big in a small’s body has gotten easier to stomach as his career has progressed.

“When I first transitioned to become like a small big, I was kind of hesitant to accept that role, and I’m like “no I wanna come off the screen and shoot, too!,” he said. “So I just had to make that adjustment . I felt like it was a growth, maturity factor, you know that you just gotta learn from. And then after I got over that hump I feel like it was smooth sailing.”

It’s odd hearing anyone — even the man himself — use the worth smooth to describe Hollis-Jefferson’s game. His charm comes from the way his limbs erratically flail about on the road to making good things happen, as well as his eagerness to punch up a weight class or three.

That rough and tumble, disposition — which on Monday he ascribed to his Chester, PA upbringing — should come in handy if and when he’s asked to man the middle among the trees again. If he can make like his coach “come up with some stuff” to make hay as a small-ball five, it might just be the key to him finally entering Nurse’s hallowed circle of trust.