Without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, the Nets stretch the definition of what it is to an NBA basketball team. Something tells me the Raptors, fresh off a pair of weekend games in which they themselves barely looked like they belonged, will not lose sleep after completely waxing the skeleton version of their fellow play-in contenders on Monday night.
Toronto hasn’t had a get well win as necessary as this one in ages. Not only did this enter this one sporting a -59 point differential since the All-Star break (-77 over their last four games), but the game kicked off a back-to-back, home-and-home series with the Nets — the team directly behind them in the standings, which will soon welcome back the kind of star power that can go on a run quick. Thing is, time is not on the Nets’ side, and a win to go up three games on Brooklyn, giving them a chance to make it four tomorrow, is about as crucial a late-February victory as you’ll find on any game log.
Even more encouraging than the result was how the Raptors achieved it. Too often this has been a team that goes as its top five guys go, unable to conjure much in the way of consistency outside of Chris Boucher’s steady chaos ball and the predictable roller coaster that is Precious Achiuwa. Typically, Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam combining to go 5-of-24 would be enough to crush any hope of a win.
Not on Monday.
Fred VanVleet (knee) joined OG Anunoby (finger) on the sidelines, thrusting Malachi Flynn into the starting five for the first time since the team was in the throws of COVID protocols in December. If you account for the undeniable truth that last season was fake, you can safely call Flynn’s 18-4-5 night on 7-of-11 shooting the best game of his stop-and-start pro career. All caveats about the Nets’ defense applied, it was awesome to see him carve up Brooklyn with his downhill burst and slithery handle. Who says Kyrie isn’t playing in games at Barclays Center this season?
Stay ready so you don't have to get ready .. pic.twitter.com/jPTdZZb8sw— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 1, 2022
Joining Flynn in the first half effort was the bench crew of Boucher, Achiuwa and Thad Young, who for one night at least tested the notion that the Raptors have no shooting off the bench. The trio combined to nail six of its first seven triples and finished 8-of-12 overall — with Flynn often the progenitor of those looks via dribble penetration. Those guys were joined by Yuta Watanabe for some productive bench time as well — a great sight to see after his extended stay in Nick Nurse’s dog house, capped with a transition yam that got everyone up.
YUTAAAAAAAAAAAA pic.twitter.com/aMhenBo6ML— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 1, 2022
It’s worth taking a second to point out the work of Precious Achiuwa, who has at worst been the second-best Raptor since the All-Star break. Against the Nets, the 22-year-old finished up with 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, along with eight boards, four dimes and three made triples on five attempts. He’s still got comically low lows to pair with his tantalzingly high highs, but the former are growing more scarce as he’s introduced more and more control to his game when the ball is in his hands. You hate to break up the bench just as it’s getting rolling, but Achiuwa should probably be starting ahead of Khem Birch until Anunoby returns.
Now, I’m burying a the lede a little here, but you can’t talk about this game without getting all sorts of giddy about Scottie Barnes. With Siakam struggling to score (not at all struggling to playmake, mind you), Barnes took the mantle of Toronto’s leading bucket man on the night. And in fact, Siakam’s wayward touch fed directly into Barnes’ team-best 28 — matching the career-high he set on Friday. Barnes feasted on the offensive glass throughout the first half, pouring in 24 points before the break on a perfect 10-of-10 shooting to go with nine boards (sevent offensive) and four steals, giving way to his final line of 28-16-4-5-1, which is a totally normal stat line for a 20-year-old, definitely. What’s most amazing about his output on the night is that the Raptors drew up less than a handful of sets designed to him get him the ball. He just knows where the hell to be. That he can put up numbers like that as no more than the fourth option on offense speaks to just how special he figures to be once the rest of the repertoire comes along.
This game truly was never in doubt. Brooklyn threw off Toronto’s rhythm in the third, grinding things to halt with, you guessed it, a healthy dose of zone defense. You wouldn’t say the starting unit of Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Khem Birch served as some zone-busting force, but they scraped by just enough with offensive rebounding, Flynn’s nascent shot-making, and the convenient fact that this version of the Nets just don’t got the sauce. Despite their mild struggles, they closed the frame strong to head into fourth up 100-69, serving up some much needed rest for Siakam and Trent, who closed with just 30 minutes played apiece.
They’re back at it tomorrow with home fans once again in the Scotiabank Arena stands, with a chance to put the ugly post-break start behind them for good, right along with the Nets.